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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Fallacy of Earmarks

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” — James Madison

Today Fox News reports; “Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Kentucky), stunned the political world when he announced Monday afternoon that he would support a two-year moratorium on earmarks when it is presented in his closed door conference meeting Tuesday. But don't look for the same from his Democratic counterpart.”

“Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-Nevada), released a statement saying, "It is up to each Senator whether or not they will support Congressionally directed funding to their state. From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada. He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met."

Reid and McConnell are both long time Appropriations Committee members, and until Monday, McConnell had adamantly defended the practice. The Republican leader said he was listening to the voters, though, as he reversed his position.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vermont), a senior member of the spending panel indicated Monday he would not support the ban, saying, "I notice the ones who call for the earmarks are the first ones who call over (to a Cabinet Secy) and say, ‘I want this particular project approved before you get confirmation of your nominee'."

Sen. Claire McCaskill D-Missouri), clearly fighting an uphill battle, was the lone Democrat to issue a statement of support for the ban on Monday, saying, "I welcome Senator McConnell to the fight to ban earmarks. Tax dollars are always best distributed based on merit. I'm glad that Republican leadership is coming around to this idea; now it's my Democratic colleagues turn to get on board. In her four year career in the Senate, McCaskill has not requested an earmark.”

Some pundits claim this is merely a symbolic gesture, which to some extent is true. However, the country needs a demonstration of some fiscal responsibility right now and earmarks are the quickest way to show the public that the Republicans are listening to the folks that elected them, mainly those who sympathize with the Tea Party.

McConnell was a big advocate of earmarks. His argument was that without Congress making the decision as to who gets the money for special programs and projects the executive office and the bureaucrats would be making them. To some extent this is true.

Tax Payers for Common Sense reports” Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has been going through the omnibus to pull together a total number of earmarks and dollar amount. TCS found 8,570 disclosed earmarks worth $7.7 billion. When you add the $6.6 billion in disclosed earmarks that were in the three FY09 spending bills that passed in the fall (Defense, DHS, MilCon/VA) you end up with $14.3 billion worth of disclosed earmarks in FY09. The apples-to-apples comparison from 2008 yielded $14.8 billion, so there was a $500 million reduction in disclosed earmarks between FY08 and FY09

Clearly the earmark culture in Washington is as strong as ever. A 2009 TCS study found that 60% of the members of the House Armed Services Committee, who arranged earmarks, also received campaign contributions from the companies that received the funding. Almost all the members of the committee received campaign contributions from companies that got earmarks that year. And yet despite repeated scandals — some resulting in lawmakers being sentenced to prison — the number of annual earmarks continues to increase. Lawmakers have continually rejected even modest proposal to temporarily suspend earmarks until the process can be cleaned up.

In addition to waste and corruption, lawmakers' obsession with pork raises a larger concern about the role of Congress. Members of the U.S. Congress-a national legislature that has historically debated war, Americans' rights, and broad economic policy-have become, in the words of Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), "mere errand boys for local government and constituents.”

The American people elected their federal lawmakers to focus on national priorities like recession, job losses, the financial collapse, and the war on terrorism. And yet these lawmakers failed to pass appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year and instead spent a substantial portion of 2008 securing pork projects such as:
  • $1,049,000 to combat Mormon Crickets in Utah;
  • $332,500 to build a school sidewalk in Franklin, Texas;
  • $225,000 for Everybody Wins!;
  • $200,000 for a tattoo removal program in Mission Hills, California;
  • $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming;
  • $237,500 for theater renovation in Merced, California; and
  • $75,000 for the Totally Teen Zone in Albany, Georgia.
Of course, lawmakers say these projects are vital to "bringing home federal dollars." In reality, many earmarks are carved out of funding streams that were already coming back to state and local governments and local organizations anyway. All of the earmarks taken from the $5 billion Community Development Block Grant program for parks, pools, street signs, and community centers just reduce the pot of money left over to distribute to local governments for the projects they would choose. And by diverting transportation dollars into projects that are often frivolous and having nothing to do with reducing congestion or improving mobility, earmarks starve higher-priorities like road maintenance and construction, which in turn forces Congress to increase spending to replenish that funding. But earmarks generate press releases and campaign contributions for lawmakers who have only tied strings to federal money that was already coming home.

It is not only Democrats that are earmark proponents — Republicans are equally guilty. One of the biggest “earmarker” is Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis (CA -41, Redlands). As the current ranking member of the Appropriations Committee Lewis has been able to bring earmarks back to his district for years.

When I was actively lobbying Congress for the National Height Modernization Program in 1996-1998 I received an education in the earmark process. You can read about the program in my book Footsteps on the Land at chapter 36.

Here is how the process works. The first thing you need is a cause, a project or a program. It does not have to be an infrastructure project, although those projects are a little easier to push through. In my case the project was a National Spatial Reference System that was a bit more difficult to describe to the members of Congress.

The next step is to find a government agency that will support your request. As an example if you are going for an earmark for a bridge you will need to find a local transportation agency that would like the money for a new bridge. If it is money for a playground you would need to tie up with an community organization. In my case I was able to partner with the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), a division within the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Once you have the partner agency, community organization or academic institution you will move on to step three.

The third step is to prepare a good narrative of what the money will be used for. The narrative should define the problem from a historic perspective; why it is in the public’s interest to grant the money, i.e. it save lives or eases traffic congestion and reduces green house gases; a cost/benefit analysis; and a proposed timeline and budget for implementation. The narrative must include a two page executive summary with your major talking points. As we know members of Congress do not like to read long papers or bills.

Now you have to wander the halls of Congress to locate a member to sponsor the earmark. You want someone on a committee that oversees the project or program you are touting, preferable from the state or district where the money will be spent. In my case I secured the support of a member from California who sat on the Appropriations Committee.

Once you locate your sponsor you prepare to give testimony before one of the subcommittees within the Appropriations Committee. You will prepare your testimony and submit it to the chair of the subcommittee and receive a date and time to give the oral testimony. In my case on the day I gave testimony there was only one member present. Fortunately he was interested in the program I was selling and invited me to his office the next day.

Now that you have a defined program, a partner agency and Congressional sponsors you need to make the rounds of Congress to visit every member who would vote on the appropriation for your program. For me it took about six months and I visited at least 20 Congressional offices. For the most part you will meet with their staff and not the member. You will also have to visit both of your state Senators to convince then to support the request for the earmark as they will eventually have to sign on a sponsor. For the earmark I was going after I met with Senators Boxer and Feinstein. It was Feinstein who signed on to support the Height Modernization earmark.

The bottom line is that I was able to get $1.4 million dollars for the first year for California and North Carolina to conduct studies and pilot projects. The study was carried out under the supervision of the NGS while the pilot projects were carried out under the direction of state agencies. In North Carolina it was the North Carolina Geodetic Survey and in California the California Spatial Reference Center, a department within he University of California at San Diego.

The study and both projects went well. My firm co-authored the study and did the project in Henderson County, North Carolina.  The study was instrumental in getting earmarks for other states to do projects of a similar nature and the pilot projects allowed the NGS to write the protocols and standards for doing future projects. All of the work was outsourced to the private sector, but administered by the NGS for which they received a 10% administration fee that was added to their annual budget — no additional staff was added. To my knowledge the program is still going on today with annual earmarks to the NGS to fund the state projects.

This was a legitimate program that is brings financial benefit to its users. Yes, it was and is financed through earmarks. To obtain these earmarks we had to jump through many hoops along the way. What will happen to this program with a moratorium on earmarks? Some earmarks are better than other earmarks.

John McCain campaigned on the “No Earmark” issue. It has become a mantra of the left and right without giving much thought to the history or purpose of earmarks. The real issue is Social Security and Medicare and the massive growth of government. The elimination of earmarks will not make a dent in the deficit, but the elimination of 10% of the federal workforce will.

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