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Earmarks in the U.S. Congress, 2001
Earmarks in the U.S. Congress, 2006
Earmarks in the U.S. Congress, 1999

This page looks at how reps in the USA often use federal or state funds for projects in their election districts. The process of selecting the local projects is controlled by a powerful person who is lobbied by a few others — often her biggest campaign sponsors.

The next page will look at using city funds for neighborhood needs. That process of Participatory Budgeting can let many people have small shares of power.

Earmarks in the U.S. Congress, 2001

The Washington Post reported (Sunday, July 8, 2001; Outlook page 6) “...earmarks [are] the devices by which individual members of Congress set aside budget resources for pet projects in their districts. This year House members have requested nearly 19,000 of these programs, an average of more than 40 per district. If all were approved, the total cost would amount to $279 billion...”

Far from being a one-time problem, the debacle reported above happens in every funding cycle. It is, for now, a way of doing business, for lobbyists seeking project funding and for politicians seeking campaign funding. Many voters think the practice is scandalous but feel helpless to change the internal rules of Congress.

House of Ill-Repute

Robert Reich; September, 2006

The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has ballooned to the point there are over 60 of them for every single member of Congress. And they spent $2.4 billion last year. What do you think the lobbyists bought with that money?

A lot of it's called “earmarks” — special spending that's stuck into pieces of legislation to benefit particular constituents, like that Alaskan bridge to nowhere in last year's highway bill, and the special casino licenses that got lobbyist Jack Abramoff into trouble.

Ten years ago there were about 3,000 earmarks. Last year there were over 14,000, costing taxpayers over $47 billion according to the Congressional Research Service.

Last January, after the Jack Abramoff scandal had spread to staffers of former House Whip Tom DeLay and Ohio Republican Bob Ney, and after FBI agents found an unexplained $90,000 cash in the freezer of Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson, and after former California Republican Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery - after all that - it seemed like the House was so embarrassed it would clean itself up. At least that's what Speaker Dennis Hastert promised.

Well, think again. Last spring the House passed a wimpy bill that barely touched earmarks and didn't even ban gifts and meals from lobbyists. And even that bill is now stalled somewhere between the House and Senate.

With the mid-term elections less than two months away, House leaders are feeling a little bit of heat. So their latest idea is to require by House rules that legislation containing earmarks list members of Congress who sponsored them.

That's not reform. That's advertising. There's no mystery about who sponsors which earmark. Just look at whose district the earmarked money will go to.

The only meaningful reform is to ban all earmarks, period. They're taxpayer rip-offs. They amount to bribery. And if this Congress won't clean up its act, we should clean up Congress and throw the rascals out.

Robert Reich; September, 2006

Capitol Hill Spending Is Flush With 'Earmarks'

Some Say Special Projects Erode Executive Branch

By Juliet Eilperin and Dan Morgan, Washington Post Staff Writers,
Monday, October 25, 1999; Page A1. Bold emphasis added.

Even as GOP leaders propose spending cuts that could affect every federal agency, Congress is inserting billions of dollars into the budget for local road and sewer projects, law enforcement initiatives, fisheries studies and dozens of other activities in the home districts of its members.

The practice, known as “earmarking,“ has long been a way for members of Congress to bring home the bacon. But lawmakers and congressional observers said the practice has reached new heights in the annual spending bills under consideration on Capitol Hill, eroding the traditional authority of the executive branch to manage federal programs.

Various bills direct the Clinton administration to study Hawaiian monk seals, consider the need for more bed space at the Etowah County, Ala., detention center, fund an astronomy exhibit at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, restore the Manchac Swamp in Louisiana, and lay out money for a ferry terminal at Hokes Bluff, Ala.

“Those who have clout and are on the inside want to ensure they get what they need,” said former representative Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), referring to the efforts by members of the appropriations committees to put projects into these bills.

In funding the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, lawmakers earmarked a record 314 projects valued at $473 million, or 13 percent of the agency's operating budget. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chairs the subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, carved $15 million out of the counter terrorism budget for a research project at Dartmouth College in his home state.

Highway bills are famous “pork barrels,” but the Transportation Department estimates that in the new bill, 90 percent of the funds appropriated for building highways, bridges, subways and airports is committed to members' projects, up from 78 percent a year ago.

“It's out of control,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public interest group that supports political reform. “It's an ad hoc effort by members to take over the executive branch function, which serves their purpose and the purpose of their campaign donors, and makes it much harder for citizens to get a fair consideration for competing projects.”

On Friday, House Republican leaders proposed a 1.4 percent, across-the-board spending reduction to finance the fiscal 2000 budget without touching Social Security revenue.

Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said, “If the congressional majority is looking to cut down on waste through an across-the-board spending cut, these earmarked projects wouldn't be a bad place to start.”

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a GOP presidential candidate, said yesterday on ABC's “This Week”: “Before we cut Meals on Wheels, why don't we cut our pay raise? It's not appropriate for us to cut programs that are necessary, even if those are small cuts, while . . . pork-barrel spending and wasteful spending is at an all-time high.”

But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) responded on CNN's “Late Edition”: “We don't have to lay anybody off. We don't have to cut salaries. We don't even have to cut Meals on Wheels. We're talking about 1 percent. All Americans know that there is more than 10 percent of government spending in waste.”
[By that logic, 90% of their cuts hit good projects and only 10% hit wasteful spending -- because they are not finding and cutting what waste there is. They are cutting the good and replacing it with questionable, semi-private projects.]

Congressional leaders vehemently denied that the earmarking is wasteful or an attempt to usurp the executive branch. Proof of that, they say, is that President Clinton has signed seven of the 13 annual appropriations bills, and serious negotiations have begun on resolving sticking points on the others.

“There's no question that the executive branch has control,” said Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the subcommittee that draws up spending allocations for veterans, housing, space and environmental programs. Walsh noted that while earmarking in the EPA budget was heavy this year, the agency will still have flexibility to decide how to spend well over 80 percent of its discretionary money.

He said money directed to district projects by members is “money well spent.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said members routinely slip small provisions into spending bills at the last minute, and he noted that at the start of the year lawmakers requested $80 billion in unauthorized projects, “most of which we had to turn down.”

“A lot of members view that as an opportunity to move their projects,” Young said. “I don't have a problem with that, because a member of Congress is here to do many things, including to do things for his or her district.”

The earmarking trend, experts say, is testimony to a web of factors that are both political and budgetary. With an election year approaching, some Democrats charged that GOP leaders want to deny the Clinton administration flexibility in channeling federal money to key states and districts.

When House-Senate negotiators sat down to iron out differences in next year's transportation spending bill, for instance, about $100 million was available for Clinton's transportation secretary to earmark for building bridges and “national corridor” highways. But by the time negotiations had ended, all of it had been committed to members' projects, including $12 million for the Chippewa Falls to Mount Elk corridor touching on the district of Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

In some cases, the congressional “add-ons” will force the administration to shift spending plans. To offset the cost of 87 congressional projects in EPA's “environmental programs” account, appropriators cut $90 million from the administration's request for global climate change initiatives, and from funds sought for enforcement and compliance monitoring.

The earmarks can also ease passage of controversial spending bills. Most of the 27 House Democrats who voted Thursday for the final version of the bill funding natural resources programs and the arts had parochial reasons for doing so, and they provided the margin of victory on the floor.

Democrats from coal states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, broke party ranks to vote for the bill because of a provision benefiting retired miners. Several Texas Democrats supported the bill because it postponed a regulation forcing oil companies to pay higher federal royalties. [That shows the need to enact policies through rules of order for a Condorcet tally. Each provision would then have to win or lose on its own merits.]

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, gave their blessing to a proposal of Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) to name the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), top Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing the CDC budget. For political balance, Inouye proposed that the National Library of Medicine be named for the subcommittee's Republican chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).

Such seemingly trivial provisions can pick up needed votes. Proponents of a $268 billion defense spending bill won over Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) this year by amending the law restricting federal assistance to universities that bar military recruiters.

Gay men and women, by and large, lobby to keep recruiters off campus, but poor students argued that this threatened their student aid because of the federal provision. A compromise in the defense bill exempted student aid from the cutoff of assistance to institutions that keep recruiters out.

“The majority gets more, but I don't think the minority gets nothing,” said [Barney] Frank.

The defense measure also picked up supporters with concessions for members suffering the pains of military base closings.

Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) won approval for federal and state funding for changing a former base in Rome, N.Y., into a research facility for the Air Force.

In backing the help for Boehlert, the GOP leadership overruled Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing base-closing policy. Hefley viewed it as “opening the floodgates” and undermining the already difficult job of shutting military bases.

And in the final maneuvering over the defense bill, Hefley found himself overruled by the House leadership in matters involving help for a National Guard base in West Bend, Wis., and Brooks Air Force Base in Texas.

Hefley said the Wisconsin project “came out of thin air” and was not even identified in the National Guard's five-year plan. But it was manna for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who sponsored it.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) requested the funds a day after the House narrowly approved the foreign aid spending bill, with Sensenbrenner voting with the majority. Sensenbrenner said he would have supported the foreign aid bill anyway, but noted: “I've been a good soldier all year, and good soldiers get rewards.”

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Earmarks are just one way the current allocation system annually gives public money to projects that do not have wide public support. On the other hand, this old system also routinely starves some projects that do have wide-spread support. Conservative chief executives, for example, often cut funding for enforcement of labor, safety and environmental laws already enacted. They know this is less visible and politically easier than reducing protection by changing the laws.

It is often said, to know who is in power and what they are doing, “follow the money.”

The next page looks at using city funds for neighborhood needs. Participatory Budgeting can let many people have small shares of power.  Paricipatory Budgeting

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