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  • A Voluntary Earmark Ban is Only Half the Battle

    “There will be no earmarks in the 112th Congress. Period.” That is what House Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor (R-VA) tweeted in response to a Politico article last week reporting that some GOP House members were contemplating breaking their no-earmark pledge. Good for Cantor. Ending earmarking is an essential step toward cutting Washington spending. Unfortunately some of Cantor’s caucus need an education about the unnecessary harm earmarks cause. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) told Politico:

    Let’s look at transportation. How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences.

    Kingston, and journalists like Mike Allen, need a history lesson. The federal government’s dependence on earmarking as THE method for allocating transportation funds is a very recent development. The Heritage Foundation’s Run Utt recently detailed to The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott: “Until 1984, earmarks in transportation appropriations bills averaged about three a year …the 1982 bill included just 10 earmarks, while 1987′s authorized 152.  Back then they were called ‘demonstration’ projects, today they are called ‘high priority’ projects, indicating that the process has corrupted even the language.”

    So our federal government managed to fund transportation for over two  hundreds of years without using today’s corrupting earmarking process. It is possible. But all that changed in the 2000s. A 2007 Department of Transportation Inspector General report requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) found that between 1996 and 2005, DOT earmarks increased in number by 1,150%, and in value by 314%. According to Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Members of the 111th Congress requested almost 40,000 earmarks worth $131 billion.

    Earmarking defenders love to claim that they are not that big a deal since earmarks do not create new spending; they only legally require the federal agencies to prioritize some projects over others. There are two problems with this: first, earmarks are often used to buy votes for other increased social spending (there is no Obamacare without the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, or Gator Aid). Second, when politically powerful politicians in Washington earmark money for their favored projects, they are necessarily simultaneously stealing it from other projects. For example, Utt explains how the federal highway program works:

    In the most recent six-year reauthorization of the federal highway program (SAFETEA-LU), Con­gress and the President agreed to spend $286 billion between FY 2004 and FY 2009 on federal highway and transit programs and established annual spend­ing limits. Congress also reconfirmed that the amount allocated to each state would be deter­mined by the same mathematical formula that has governed the program since its creation in the mid-1950s. With each state’s financial apportionment set by formula, most of the money for the 7,000 to 8,000 earmarks listed in the bill must therefore come out of each state’s allocation. Thus, if a mem­ber of the Nevada delegation succeeded in getting a $2 million earmark to build a bicycle trail in Elko in 2005, then that $2 million would be taken out of the $254 million allocated to the Nevada Depart­ment of Transportation (DOT) for that year, effec­tively reducing the state’s discretionary spending on its own priorities by that amount.

    One of the reasons why earmarks are included in spending bills even though they provide no addi­tional money is that they allow lobbyists and Mem­bers of Congress to preempt a state DOT’s investment priorities. The state may otherwise have concluded that a new lane on a congested highway in a Las Vegas suburb would be more beneficial than a hiking trail, but earmarks allow Washington play­ers to overrule that decision and reallocate the money to other purposes while pretending that the earmark represents extra money.

    Instead of projects getting funded on the basis of need or cost benefit analysis, projects get funded on the basis of political favors and seniority. For example, while the Army Corps of Engineers was spending $72.2 million in FY 2005 on flood control in the New Orleans area, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was fighting to fund a $194 million project to deepen the Port of Iberia.

    That is why a voluntary earmarking ban is not enough. Further reforms are needed to make sure all of our legislators are not corrupting the infrastructure funding process. And there are steps Congress can take to make infrastructure funding more efficient.

    We recommend allowing states to opt-out of the federal highway program. States should also be allowed to opt-out of the federal highway program in return for a commitment to meet certain obligations. In return for the right to retain all of the federal fuel tax revenues raised within the state, the state would agree to (1) maintain the interstate highway system to a certain standard of quality, (2) meet a series of existing federal safety standards, and (3) forgo the receipt of any federal transportation spending derived from general revenues.

    Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has proposed a similar policy for the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund: allowing states to choose where to use the Harbor Maintenance taxes collected at their ports. DeMint writes:

    The national Harbor Maintenance Trust (HMT) Fund collects over a billion dollars each year but never spends all of it on port development. Some of it is used to pay for other government spending and some of it’s used for projects that have no impact on commerce.

    While South Carolina has to beg for funding, the Congressional Research Service has pointed out that, “Yaquina Bay and Harbor in Oregon … has received over $25 million in HMT revenues over the last decade. No cargo has been shipped through this harbor in years,” and, “In 1998, the [Humboldt Harbor in California] embarked on a deepening project from 40 to 48 feet but ship traffic has declined since then. About one ocean-going ship calls at this port per month.” Over 1,500 ships called on Charleston last year. … We need to put a stop to this diversion of funds to low-priority projects by politicians like California Sens. Barbara Boxer (chair, Environment and Public Works Committee) and Dianne Feinstein (senior member, Appropriations Committee).

    Getting conservatives in the House and Senate to unilaterally stop earmarking is an unequivocal good. However, it is not enough. Our federal infrastructure financing system is broken and fundamental reforms, like those outlined above, will be needed to permanently cut both spending and corruption in Washington.

    UPDATE: An earlier version of this post claimed there were no earmarks in 1998. That is not true. According to CAGW there were 2,143 earmarks worth 13.2 billion in 1998 compared to just 546 earmarks worth $3.1 billion in 1991, the first year for which CAGW has data.

    Posted in Ongoing Priorities [slideshow_deploy]

    8 Responses to A Voluntary Earmark Ban is Only Half the Battle

    1. George Colgrove, VA says:

      “Let’s look at transportation. How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project?”

      Easy answer, close the departments and leave the money in the state for them to figure it out. The people in a state are closer to the ground and know what the needs are. Federal employees are aloof and at best need to consume valuable money and resources getting themselves up to speed. Federal employees have simply become too expensive to do these tasks. The financial resources can be better used by the far less but more fairly paid and better skilled state employees.

      The Federal budget is about $3.9 trillion. The DoD and HHS take just under half of that. First, we need to cut government spending by 36% this year so we no longer go into deeper debt – we need to do this! We were 36% overdrawn from tax revenue in 2010. Revenues will continue to go down as households outside the greater DC area continue to fall and more people are out of work.

      The federal budget should be no more than $2.5 trillion – that is funded (assuming tax revenue does not decline again for 2011 as it has for 2009 and 2010).

      Hypothetically, we could cut half of that by closing down all the earmarking departments, agencies and programs. These duties should be restored back to the state government umbrellas. (Assuming we keep only HHS and the DoD – plus the state department and other small programs open). That leaves up to $1.25 trillion to be spread over the state. This amounts to each state keeping an average of $25 billion that no longer need to be collected by the feds. How many projects will the states be able to decide on using the full amount – without having the majority of that funds being sucked up by wasteful federal spending and very high paychecks and benefits for federal workers?

      “So our federal government managed to fund transportation for over two hundreds of years without using today’s corrupting earmarking process.”

      I do not believe this is true. I believe the federal government started providing funding for highway projects around 1916 with the first federal highway aid act. At the advent of the automobile, roads were privately owned and managed and were so for decades. The feds came along and commandeered the highways due to public outcry that some companies charging unfair high toll rates. Of course now one can easily pay over $20 in tolls to go from DC to Massachusetts. I think by the closeout of the 40’s there were no more privately held roads to speak of. However, that being said, the Feds never really managed highways. They really dont now. The states do with guidelines they publish. AASHTO – a private organization of state highway officials and run by the states (an organization where the feds have no voting authority) is the premier organization that publishes design guidelines, provides the tools to ensure the safety of our roads and bridges, and provides the highway management practices.

      One could say that the USDOT – other than funning cash in the way the politicians direct them to – has little effect on highway and bridge design. All other duties could easily be spread back out to the states as every state has identical functions the USDOT have. This department could be cut along with Education and Energy with no noticeable difference. DC currently has four very lush federal office buildings that could be easily be sold tot eh private sector to be converted into hotels. Especially the USDOT buildings behind the Air and Space Museum. Converting these federal office buildings into hotels would provide a boom for the cash strapped District of Columbia local government, and give tourist a place to stay very close to the DC Mall.

    2. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Voluntary Earmark Ban is Only Half the Battle -- Topsy.com

    3. PcnLady,Oklahoma says:

      All this is a mute point repeal the 16 admendent and enstate a fair tax and get our companys back state side where they belong. There are enough socialists in the white house they should love it because the old communist states enacted the flat tax and look how far they have come back. I tired of these people being so stupid. they walk when they sould run and stand up when they should duck. And WE the People are the ones who get hit. They are just plain stuck on stupid.

    4. Norma in Nebraska says:

      I called Sen. Grassley's office in Washington re Iowa earmarks on the tax bill for green energy and was informed by his "phone person" that those were NOT earmarks. So I guess the real problem here may be the definition of what an earmark is!!!!

      Each bill should be strong enough to stand on its own without having to be attached to something essential like a blood sucker on a host! Of course, when our government was run this way, it was immensely smaller and had little power over States and the people. But now that government has become the cancer in our lives, even the people who work in Washington can't decide what an earmark really is, Therefore we certainly need to define what an earmark means to US and send it to all of them so THEY know!!!

      As in every other progression away from the Constitution, it all started with just "one little exception," like czars! The exception was considered harmless, and after all the purpose behind it may well have been noble. BUT this kind of erosion is like a cancer: it starts small and is almost invisible, and if not detected and stopped, it becomes a raging disease that destroys the host . . . in this case the fundamental guidelines of our government.

      We better be on our knees every night PRAYING that the Good Lord is watching over us and will "deliver us from evil" because I fear what the unchecked result will be.

    5. Pingback: Morning Bell: Another Victory on the Road to Repeal | The Foundry: Conservative Policy News.

    6. Spiritof76, NH says:

      We need to prosecute the lawmakers that vote for earmarks, for deficits and increase their personal wealth. We must make the lawmakers forfeit the wealth that they had acquired while serving in the Congress. Being nice with these people will not make any difference, Republican or Democrat.

    7. Judy, Washington says:

      Is it possible for someone in Congress to introduce a bill that would demand that all future bills must be a one-issue bill? That would solve the earmark problem. If a Congress member needed to fund a certain project for his/her state, then a separate, one-issue bill must be presented and voted on for that project only. It sounds so simple and if it were law, it would work.

    8. Pingback: Morning Bell: Another Victory on the Road to Repeal | Step Down Obama

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