Naturally, when a gigantic omnibus appropriations bill came to the Senate floor last week, 98 percent of it got almost no attention. "Member projects -- aka earmarks or 'pork' -- account for less than 2 percent of spending in the $410 billion omnibus bill on the floor of the Senate this week, but they're drawing most of the opposition fire," The Christian Science Monitor reported. Less than 2 percent! Of course, this orgy of waste offended me for the same reason it offended everyone else: I was not getting an earmark.
I decided to get an earmark. Seemed easy enough. Just call someone in a congressional office, make a silly request -- propose converting pig vomit into drywall, that sort of thing -- and voila, I would have my very own "pet project."
So I called my congressman, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who, handily enough, is a member of the Appropriations Committee. Imagine my shock when I got a staffer who insisted that I would have to apply.
Apply? For a pet project? Right. There was a form. As in, paperwork. The exact form would depend on which Appropriations subcommittee has jurisdiction. And I would need to meet with legislative aides to explain why my project deserved funding. And they would probably vet my request with the relevant federal agency.
Oh. But then I'm in, right?
Not quite. Moran told me he will get a thousand earmark applications this year. "It actually goes up every year." He will accept only the best hundred or so.
But then I'm in?
No, then the relevant Appropriations subcommittee further whittles the list. About three dozen of Moran's earmarks will get funded, he figures.
So my chances of scoring boodle were on the order of only 3 percent. I didn't fill out the form, even though it was only a page long. Down in Norfolk, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., requires earmark applicants to fill out a seven-page form that looks like my tax return -- and I itemize. "Please check all that apply: ... This project is largely for EPA consent decree.... Preliminary planning and engineering design is completed." Really, it takes all the thrill out of pet projects.
Beating up on earmarks is fun. But if you interrupt the joy long enough to take a closer look, you may discover that the case against earmarks has pretty much evaporated over the past few years. In fact, reformers seem to want to hound out of existence a system that actually works better than much of what Washington does.
The case against earmarks has pretty much evaporated over the past few years.
When former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., entered Congress in 1985, "there were no earmarks," he told me recently. Perhaps, you say, this was because appropriators were indifferent to how much federal money flowed to their districts? Sorry, bad guess.
In those days, according to Kolbe (an Appropriations Committee member who retired in 2007), appropriators felt little need to write earmarks into law. Instead, subcommittee chairmen and ranking members just dropped money into program accounts. Then they called up executive branch bureaucrats with advice on how to spend it.
"Most agencies didn't need to be threatened if the chairman of their subcommittee called," says Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Committee staff director and now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Sometimes, Lilly says, "you'd increase the entire national program in order that it would have a better chance that it would spill into your state."
In the 1980s and 1990s, the once-sequestered system cracked open. The number of earmarks increased by a factor of 25 between 1991 and 2005. Earmarks were often invisible, at least until after they were enacted. "The bill would be passed before people even started digging into what was in there," Lilly says. Public outrage swelled.
On its heels, however, came reform, notably in the last couple of years. Every earmark request now must be made public before Congress votes on it. The sponsoring member, the amount and nature of the request, and the name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed. You can find all this stuff online. As I was miffed to discover, many congressional offices have formalized the application procedure. Getting an earmark now is a lot like applying for a grant.
As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs. Obsessing about earmarks, indeed, has the perverse, if convenient, effect of distracting the country from its real spending problems, thus substituting indignation for discipline.
Earmarks are often criticized for rewarding political clout rather than merit. If earmarks were merit-based, says Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, you wouldn't see them flowing disproportionately to Appropriations Committee members. And earmarks, he adds, reflect parochial rather than national priorities. "There's no way the Appropriations Committee is able to vet the thousands of earmarks worth billions of dollars."
Fair enough. But if you think that executive branch decisions are strictly apolitical and merit-based, I have two words for you: Karl Rove. "The idea that the only politicians in the government are in the Congress is just false," Lilly says. If you think that executive branch decision-making is transparent, I have two more words for you: Dick Cheney.
And if you think Congress is parochial, take it up with Mr. Madison. He wrote the Constitution, which says, in terms that leave no room for quibbling, that the power of the purse belongs to Congress. The Founders' notion was that accountability to local voters was the best safeguard for the people's money. "The idea that unless something is in the president's budget Congress shouldn't consider it turns the Constitution on its head," Kolbe says.
"The problem with a lot of federal programs is that they have to take a cookie-cutter approach," Moran says. Big, conventionally authorized programs, with their funding formulas and contracting rules and national purview, may be too slow to meet urgent local needs, too rigid to support innovation, too formulaic to finance a one-shot project.
Kolbe recalls an earmark that sped up an approved but languishing highway project in Arizona. "It was desperately needed; there were huge backups on the interstate," he says. "Seeing the growing need, not anticipated at the time of its initial approval, we simply jumped it up on the priority list."
Political discretion can be abused, and one would certainly not want most federal spending to be subject to it. But, provided that transparency is assured, shouldn't there be a place in government for elected officials to exercise judgment in the use of taxpayer money? In fact, if you wanted to create a nonbureaucratic, transparent system of rapid-response grants for pressing local concerns, you would come up with something very much like today's earmarking system (and you'd call it "reinventing government").
Some earmark spending is silly, but then so is some non-earmark spending, and there is a lot more of the latter. Competition for funding, combined with flexibility and local knowledge, makes earmarks "often some of the best expenditures the federal government makes in a particular area," Lilly says. "I would say, on the whole, earmarks probably provide as much value-added as non-earmarked federal spending."
And earmark spending today is, if anything, more transparent, more accountable, and more promptly disclosed than is non-earmark spending. Indeed, executive agencies could stand to emulate some of the online disclosure rules that apply to earmarks.
These days, the problem is not so much with earmarking as with Congress's and the public's obsession with it. "It just takes too damn much time," Lilly says. "Congress is spending an inordinate amount of time on 1 percent of the budget and giving the executive branch much too free a rein on the other 99 percent."
Reformers who want to ban earmarking might think again. "You're never going to abolish earmarks," Moran says. "What you'll wind up abolishing is the transparency, the accountability." If unable to earmark, legislators will inveigle executive agencies behind the scenes, fry bureaucrats at hearings, and expand or rewrite entire programs to serve parochial needs. This, of course, is the way things worked in the bad old days. "I think you'll wind up going back to that system," Kolbe cautions.
A better approach is to improve transparency and further routinize the earmarking process, as President Obama proposed on Wednesday when he signed the omnibus spending bill. But here is a reform that would help much more: Declare earmarking an ex-problem and move on. Next time you come across someone who looks at a giant federal spending bill and sees only the 2 percent that happens to be earmarked, tell that person to get over it.
This article appeared in the Saturday, March 14, 2009 edition of National Journal.