The November 2nd, 2010, mid term elections should have sent one EXTREMELY clear message to lawmakers to “stop wasteful spending, or you will lose your job”. This has led to contentious debates over ways to control spending, one of the most obvious, earmarks.
On November 30, 2010, the United States Senate rejected the idea of banning earmarks. The reason the idea is met with so much resistance in the Senate is because earmarks have always played a vital role in funding State projects. Many highways, interstates, bridges, and corridors are built using earmarked money. Likewise, many research and development grants, universities, construction projects, and State emergency funds are also earmarked during the legislative process.
However, there are some interesting peculiarities to the earmarking process that leave the whole thing looking, well… rather shady.
First, I think it is important to understand how Congress works to fully grasp the earmarking process and judge it fairly. Congress, on an annual basis, votes to fund certain dollar amounts to various federal departments (ie.. the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, etc..) to spend. These funds are expected to be used in their entirety. If a department fails to do so, the remaining money is transferred to the general fund and the following year, as a consequence, the department gets less money appropriated to it.
The money for an earmark, usually, comes from the corresponding federal department that matches the request for funds. For example, a new Bureau of Motor Vehicles facility for a State would come from funding already allocated to the Department of Transportation, a new school or university for a State would get funds from the Department of Education, and so forth. Once the Department of ‘whatever’ runs out of money, earmarks become either ‘unfunded’ by that department, or diverted to that department.
When you consider that not every State may need federal funding, that federal requirements can cause a State to need federal funding, and the fact that the corresponding federal department must spend the money allocated to it by Congress or lose it and face future penalty, the whole idea of earmarking does not look so bad.
Where things begin to look strange is when you examine the rules (or lack thereof).
- Earmarks are not included in drafts of proposed legislation to representatives until the final draft is complete. By then, the proposed legislation is read for vote and there is not much time to review bills for wasteful spending.
- Earmarks do not have to be related to the legislation they are attached to.
- Hard earmarks define a price tag, who is sponsoring the earmark, and what the earmark is spent on.
- Soft earmarks do NOT define a specific price tag, allows the sponsor of the earmark to remain anonymous, and generalizes the purpose of the earmark by using wording such as: “this committee endorses…”, “we have become aware of…”, “the committee urges…”, or “the committee recommends…”.
- Earmarks are not only financial in nature, they can be ‘riders’ on legislation.
These five points create a wide open door that allows members of Congress to fund whatever they see fit with taxpayer money, then get away with political maneuvering during election cycles. Members of Congress, continually, introduce legislation with earmarked bills attached to them that can not make it through Congress on their own merit. While at the same time, fund many private entities, through the earmark process, that are politically biased to support their own political ambitions, not the good of the American people as a whole.
An all out ban on earmarking seems overkill and could ‘potentially’ do more harm than good. Perhaps a few modifications to the rules of earmarking would serve better.
- Prohibit earmarking legislation with bills that can not pass on their own merit. (or bundled legislation)
- Prohibit soft earmarking. The public has a right to know where their money is going.
- Prohibit earmarking legislation that request unrelated funds, unless it is an emergency.
Bundled legislation should be completely banned from Congressional practice. If legislation can not pass on it’s own merit, it should not be used to hold another piece of legislation ‘hostage’. This is nothing more than a form of terrorism and must be stopped immediately. All earmarks should be plainly documented to account for all federal spending. Unless a district in the United States has need of emergency funds, all earmarks should be “HARD” in nature with no exceptions. Price tags should be included (except in case of emergency), sponsors should be a matter of public record, and the exact purpose and entity that the earmarked funds are going to should be a matter of public record.
This is the true type of reform in earmarks that I think most people would like to see, not some crazy ban that will lead to the denial of emergency services to United States citizens or bloated federal departments that have no clue what each individual Congressional district needs.