Outside editorial: The truth about federal earmarks

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News:

Here's something we wish Barack Obama had said in the recent debate: "I promise in the first year of my administration to . . . do absolutely nothing about congressional earmarks."

It would be a needed dose of realism in the increasingly irrelevant discussion about so-called "pork-barrel spending." Earmarks can and have been abused, but presidents need to set priorities, and the consensus choice for No. 1 is strengthening the "fundamentals of our economy." Neither reforming or eliminating earmarks would do that.

Besides, it's unclear just what an earmark is. In general, it's a project or grant inserted into one of Congress's annual spending bills, but the details make a difference. A 2006 analysis by the Congressional Research Service provided a different definition for each of the 13 appropriations bills it analyzed - for a total of $52 billion in earmarks. Citizens for Government Waste, using a narrower definition, found $18 billion in earmarks last year.

What is clear is that John McCain's continuing attempt to conflate "earmark" and "waste" is just plain wrong. Among the more expansively defined earmarks is $3 billion in aid to Israel. Even the more narrowly defined earmarks include grants for infrastructure, funding for universities and museums and medical research. No one can say how many of the current programs funded by earmarks would, if the earmark were eliminated, have to be funded another way.

Although some of the projects may be frivolous, it's easy to mischaracterize them, as McCain did in all three debates. In the first, he joked about a study of "bear DNA" that in fact is a legitimate scientific approach to estimate the number of grizzly bears and determine whether they continue to be an endangered species. (McCain actually voted for the appropriations bill that included the earmark.)

In the second and third debates, McCain scoffed at a $3 million request from Obama for what McCain called an "overhead projector" for the Chicago planetarium. That unsuccessful funding request - from both Illinois senators and six area congressmen - was to replace the planetarium's 40-year-old projection system, which is so obsolete that repair parts aren't available.

Philadelphians benefit from many earmarks: For example, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady got $600,000 in 2002 for repairs to the Platt Bridge. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter snagged $1 million for the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership last year.

Recent reforms make the process somewhat more transparent and defendable. Casey didn't shrink from being named the top earmark-getter among freshman senators, having devised a vetting process for earmark requests, including a detailed application and presentation and an on-site visit from a Casey staff member.

We're not about to make the case for spending $129,000 for a "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" in North Carolina or $250,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society - among many of the 11,000-plus earmarks each year. In the recent past, some earmarks were not much different from legal bribery, with a congressional action followed immediately by a campaign contribution from the earmark beneficiary. It would be much better to use "big picture" criteria to make appropriations - like the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, which we support.

But completely revamping the appropriations process is not the most critical task facing the country. Even if all $18 billion currently defined as earmarks could be eliminated, that's less than a month's spending on the war in Iraq.

It's staggering to imagine what the new president will face on Jan. 21: Where to begin to clean up the mess? Not with earmarks, that's for sure.

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