Friday, February 27, 2009

Ranting about earmarks (It's not what you think)

This rant was inspired by an excellent procedural question posted over at Congress Matters.

Now that President Obama has submitted his budget to Congress, the sausage factory that is the budget process will kick into high gear here in the District. With that will come the inevitable howling and gnashing of teeth about those damnable "earmarks."

If you listen to the "loyal opposition" too long, you might even agree that earmarks are inherently evil. The problem is that not many people actually understand know what an earmark really is.

The issue is not how much money goes into earmarks. The issue is how they are awarded.

Let's start with the official definition of an earmark from the Office of Management and Budget:

Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds. Congress includes earmarks in appropriation bills - the annual spending bills that Congress enacts to allocate discretionary spending - and also in authorization bills.

The OMB site also lets you search for earmarks.

So what does that mean? The language is quite harsh and highlights an Executive-Legislative branch conflict. Traditionally, Congress appropriates money and the bureaucracy (Executive Branch) spends money.

For all of the spin, it is important to note that "earmarks" only account for less than one percent of the federal budget.

Here it is in graphic form:

Earmarks in the Federal Budget Pictures, Images and Photos


So what exactly are earmarks? An earmark is a provision in one of the 12 appropriations bills that specifically directs spending to a given project. From OMB:

In fiscal year 2008, there were 11,524 earmarks totaling $16,501,833,000 for appropriations accounts.

Here's another good background from Slate's Explainer.

As we learned earlier, earmarks "circumvent(s) the merit-based or competitive allocation process." Executive Branch agencies typically dole out grant money to projects that meet specific criteria dictated by the given agency. The grant process is long and tedious and involves enough paperwork to destroy several acres of Amazon rain forest (small exaggeration).

So you have invested the time and effort to submit a grant application to some anonymous bureaucrat in Washington (or state capitol for state agency grants) and hope that the grant is approved. If you get the money, great. If not, you will be submitting that application next year or you will give up. Don't forget that you are competing against a whole slew of other applications from other communities.

Caveat: Even if a grant is approved, federal funds usually involve a local match. That means your local government will probably be raising taxes to cover the local match.

But there is another (and more efficient) way to get money for your "pet project." Convince your member of Congress that this project is absolutely necessary to your state/city/community/watershed/hamlet. Since every member of Congress has an interest in "bringing home the bacon" to secure votes, every member tends to support every other member's earmarks. It's like a fast track for local projects and the analogy of pigs feeding at a trough is not all that off target.

In practical terms, consider a hypothetical situation. Your community needs money to repair a bridge that is about to fall down. You could put in an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation and hope that it gets funded through a grant. The other option is to invite your Senator or Representative to inspect the bridge and ask for an earmark. It might be a good idea to have the member drive across the bridge and fear for his/her life during the trip.

In either scenario, the federal money is going to be spent. The federal budget does not care if the money is spent in your town or Wasilla, Alaska. The real difference is who decides how the money will be spent. Is is your member of congress or someone else's member.

Remember this adage:

Sure he's an asshole. But he's our asshole.

It should go without saying that Members of Congress with seniority get more earmarks than freshmen. This is why Robert Byrd, who has been in the Senate since the invention of the telegraph, gets more money for West Virgina than the nOObies.

So the real issue with earmarks is not the amount of money appropriate, as Grandpa McSame tried to argue. Instead, it is a question of equity. Should states with long serving Senators be more entitled to federal funds than states with Freshmen representation?

Your thoughts...

Update: How cool is this? Kagro X, aka David Waldman, promoted this diary to the front page over at Congress Matters.


American Girl said...

Ooh, look at you all famous and stuff.

I'd like to say that seniority shouldn't impact whether your project gets funded but Durbin is my senator and while he's no Byrd or Kennedy, he has been around for awhile. Of course, if he loses re-election, I'd have to say it's not fair that the newbies get shut out out.

Chris said...

Hey, American Girl

Yeah, seniority shouldn't have anything to do with it, but that's just reality in Congress.

OTOH: That's usually temporary since members have large reelection rates. As long as your district/state does not keep changing representation every few election cycles, the money will come rolling in.

In fact, that's one of the biggest arguments made for reelecting the incumbent.