In 2007, after much hew and cry, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act and clamped down on the process of “earmarking.” The term is used to describe the political practice of directing funds to a specific recipient while circumventing a merit-based fund allocation process. President Barack Obama, just to show his fiscal responsibility muscle, announced in 2011 that he was going to veto any bill that had earmarks in it. Oh, the bad rep this dear little budget authorization has received…
Our friend the earmark has been tarred with the pejorative of being “pork barrel” spending. Bills with several earmarks, particularly those at the end of a congressional year or session have been called “Christmas Trees.” You would think that millions of your hard-earned taxpayer dough were being burned on vanity projects throughout any number of congressman’s districts.
From 1998-2007, according to the group Citizens Against Government Waste, federal outlays due to earmarks on average represented .86% of the budget. That’s 7/8ths a percent of the national budget. During the same period, the Congressional Research Service say earmarks equaled 1.65% of the federal outlays. Oh, the horror!
In the meantime, our infrastructure – roads, bridges, dams, schools, and airports – are getting a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Overall, they say that $4.5 trillion needs to be investedinto repairing, upgrading and improving our infrastructure before the end of 2025. This report was last produced in 2017, the same year the Oroville dam spillway collapsed nearly leading to the dam being breached. This year another report from ASCE is scheduled to come out, and I don’t think we are getting to the head of the class this time.
Why is this happening? An example of the epic failure happened last year when the House passed a $1.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill and the Senate sat on it. Why? Because it is easy for those in GOP claim that it is a government boondoggle to gift poorly run blue state and city governments. The Democrats, on the other hand, claim that red states and cities are lining the pockets of their contributors. It’s easy to find flaws in something big.
My case is as follows: Nobody understands more about their local infrastructure needs better than a member of Congress. They hear from the constituents and local elected officials about every rusty bridge and potholed street.
For the sake of example, I’m going to use Oroville and its dam. Presumably, Congressman Doug LaMalfa would know the aging dam in his district needed a bit of a fix-up. Seeing an authorization bill going through congress that needed his support, he would attach an “earmark” to it fixing and updating the important source of energy and clean water in his district. Well, the sponsor of the bill could axe his earmark but they would be doing so at their peril. They may need the congressman’s vote on the floor for final passage.
We have water pipes in this country, in several places, that are more than a century old. It is estimated that the U.S. loses two trillion gallons of treated water each year. It is a ridiculous level of waste. Not to mention the horrid crises that came about in Flint, Michigan due to poor water management. This is why I say it is money invested. If this were a business, this kind of expenditure would be called a “capital project” and would be separate from the profit and loss statement. Want government run more like a business? Stop it with the deferred maintenance.
And, oh, by the way, these projects produce jobs. Not just government jobs, but jobs coming from local businesses such as contractors and subcontractors that do the work. It helps the local economy, which I guess this is why it’s called “pork-barrel spending” because the local Congressman is bringing home the bacon.
Frankly, the tired anecdote of people in orange vests leaning against shovels and bridges to nowhere is not supported by data. The more we complain about earmarks, the faster our local infrastructure crumbles. There’s data to support that – hard numbers.
Maybe earmarks will provide an opening for Congress to become a bit less tribal. I have a really old example of a Congressman becoming an advocate for an issue that did not directly affect his constituents. Way back in 1969, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was introduced. One of the leading advocates was San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I can tell you there are no coal mines or coal miners in ‘The City By the Bay’. But he knew the law would have an effect on dock workers, would set a precedent for labor law, and was good for the country. He vigorously supported the bill, and it became law. Five years later despite having one of the most liberal voting records, Burton was in a position to make a strong run for House Majority Leader, coming up just one vote short.
When there were earmarks, more of this type of cooperation existed. Will they bring back an era of goodwill all on their own? Maybe not. But the next time Jim Jordan needs a bridge repaired or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs a water system renovated, they might find a way to cooperate that does not exist right now.
Frankly speaking, I would much rather have our elected representatives fixing and building our infrastructure than arguing about whether Dr. Suess or Mr. Potato Head has been canceled. Count me in favor of the earmark!