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The Earmark Question That Won't Die The Earmark Question That Won't Die

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The Earmark Question That Won't Die


Obama chose the Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop to tout his infrastructure plan. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Sportscaster Joe Buck famously said this about the St. Louis Cardinals: "They just won't go away." (Washington Nationals Fans know this all too painfully.)

House Speaker John Boehner must be thinking the same thing as grumblings continue about the inability of members of Congress to direct funds to projects within their own districts, an activity known as earmarking. Under Boehner's leadership, House Republicans banned the practice in 2006. The once powerful transportation chiefs on Capitol Hill have been hobbled ever since.


Last week, at the start of "Infrastructure Week," Boehner made his continued opposition to earmarks painfully clear. "As long as I'm here, no earmarks," he said on Fox News and then proceeded to circulate the quote to the press and promote the clip on his Web site.

The earmark ban is old news, and Congress continues to survive without them. But lawmakers keep talking about them, as if maybe they can be raised from the dead. Take this Roll Call story from earlier in the month in which Republican appropriator Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota said he wants to bring earmarks back as long as the process involves "open transparency and disclosure."

Last week, conferees on a water resources bill unveiled their final product, which could actually become law this year, touting the fact that it contains no earmarks. Yet my colleague Billy House pointed out that the water projects that are facilitated by the nearly completed law are pretty close to earmarks. Here's an excerpt of his story:


"This is a major hurricane and flood protection bill that will provide safety for Louisianans," declared Sen. David Vitter in a news release listing several items, including the massive Morganza-to-the Gulf-project, a complex set of hurricane and storm damage-reduction works that some critics have dubbed the "Great Wall of Louisiana." (Some call it a boondoggle.)

Wherever there is infrastructure investment, it's hard to get away from the accompanying tangible benefit that exists, well, somewhere. The only question is this: Who gets to decide where it goes?

Defenders of earmarks in Congress will tell you that not being able to direct funding to their states puts more power in the hands of the administration to choose. President Obama chose the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. The president used the aging bridge, which is undergoing reconstruction, as a backdrop to make his point that the nation needs to put more money into highways and bridges.

The administration says 112,000 similar projects are on the line. Obama can pick the ones he wants to highlight just as well as members of Congress.


If nothing else, Infrastructure Week allowed the White House and a broad coalition of advocates to sound the alarm that the highway trust fund is running out of money and Congress needs to do something. Earmarks won't solve the overall shortfall. (The Senate's surface transportation bill needs $100 billion.) But all the talk about the need to fund infrastructure may be whetting lawmakers' appetites for slightly more control over the process through earmarks. Or at least something that looks a lot like them.

For our insiders: How has the earmark ban transformed the legislative process? Would Congress be in a better position to pass a surface transportation bill if earmarks were allowed? Will earmarks ever come back? Does the earmark-free water resources bill change the equation?

(Note: This is a moderated blog on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)

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