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Time to End Earmarks Once and For All

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December 20, 2011

Year after year, lawmakers have sullied the political process by directing chunks of the federal budget back to their home districts and states to promote their own reelections and reward special interests. In an attempt to put an end to this form of profligate spending, Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) recently introduced S. 1930, The Earmark Elimination Act, which would build upon and make permanent the current earmark moratorium that is set to expire at the end of 2012.

Even as federal power vastly expanded during the twentieth century, Congress did not earmark extensively until the 1980s. Instead, Congress would fund general grant programs and let federal and state agencies select individual recipients through a competitive process or formula. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees named specific projects only when they had been vetted and approved by authorizing committees. Members of Congress with local concerns would lobby the president and federal agencies for consideration. The process was aimed at preventing abuse and allocating resources on the basis of merit and need.

From 1991 until the enactment of the moratorium for the 112th Congress, earmarks steadily increased in frequency and size. A 2007 report from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Inspector General found that between 1996 and 2005, DOT earmarks increased in number by 1,150 percent and in value by 314 percent. As vocal critics such as Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have noted, earmarks have greased the skids for runaway spending and bad policy for decades. Politically powerful politicians in Washington began using earmarks as a currency to buy votes on bills that members would not otherwise vote for. The secrecy involved in this process invited the use of earmarks to fund wasteful projects, such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that was included in the 2005 transportation bill.

Taxpayers were hopeful that this practice would come to an end with the passage of the earmark moratorium for the 112th Congress. Unfortunately, that hope was misplaced. Analysis of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by Citizens Against Government Waste identified 111 earmarks – 59 of which matched exact language from previous earmarks. A December 12, 2011 report produced by Sen. McCaskill’s office identified 115 earmarks worth $834 million in the NDAA. Twenty Republican freshmen who campaigned against earmarks were among the requesters.

In the 16 fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills that Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has analyzed thus far, 12 have contained earmarks, totaling 251 projects worth $9.6 billion. The FY 2012 Senate version of the Department of Defense appropriations bill included 49 earmarks worth $2.9 billion and the House version added 72 earmarks worth $3.9 billion.

While the number of earmarks during the moratorium has substantially decreased compared to prior years (earmark spending in 2010 amounted to $16.5 billion), transparency has diminished. In the past, most earmarks were contained in a single table that included the account that was to fund the earmark and the city or state where the project was located. Members were also required to attach their names to earmark requests and submit accompanying certification letters. Members who violate the moratorium simply do not attach their names to earmarks and projects are not separated from the text of the bill, meaning that the unearthing of earmarks requires reading each bill line-by-line.

The Earmark Elimination Act would permanently ban all earmarks. By law, an earmark would be defined as any congressionally-directed spending item, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit. The legislation would also create a point of order against an earmark in any bill. A two-thirds vote would be required to waive the point of order and allow the earmark to remain in the bill.

The definition of an earmark in Sens. Toomey and McCaskill’s legislation varies slightly from CAGW’s. To qualify as a pork project under CAGW’s definition, a project must meet at least one of seven criteria: requested by only one chamber of Congress; not specifically authorized; not competitively awarded; not requested by the President; greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; not the subject of congressional hearings; or serves only a local or special interest.

Enacting a permanent ban on earmarks would be a powerful step toward establishing a culture of fiscal restraint in Washington. However, after witnessing earmarks slip past the moratorium, there is little doubt that legislators will continue to circumvent the rules to send money back to their districts. Accordingly, CAGW will continue to root out pork-barrel spending in Washington. Lawmakers should once and for all establish a statutory system in which taxpayer dollars are awarded on a basis of merit, not political power. S. 1930 is a positive step in the right direction.

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