Despite their claims, the Republicans’ ban on earmarks won’t stop lawmakers from steering taxpayers’ dollars to pet projects. And it will have little if any effect on Washington’s far graver problem — the gigantic budget deficit.
Saying Election Day victories gave them a mandate to curb spending, Republicans formally agreed last week to a two-year prohibition of earmarks, legislative provisions that funnel money to lawmakers’ favorite projects. President Barack Obama has said he, too, wants to restrict earmarks, though he defended some as helping communities.
“I am proud that House and Senate Republicans have united to end the earmark favor factory,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leader in the drive to stop the practice.
While the ban will make it harder for lawmakers to bring pork-barrel spending back home, it is far from airtight.
Savvy members of Congress have options like “phone-marking,” picking up the telephone and pressuring agency officials to spend money on specific projects. Lawmakers are sure to exploit uncertainty over exactly how the ban will be applied, such as whether it will bar money for projects already in the works. And Democrats, who will still run the Senate next year, have not agreed to the restrictions. Neither have some Republicans.
“There’s no way you can stamp out every effort” by lawmakers to bring home the bacon, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another leading earmark foe. “But you can marginalize it.”
Even completely eliminating earmarks would hardly ensure that spending decisions will be objective and divorced from politics. Presidents and agency officials control where many federal dollars go and have always used that power to reward allies. And formulas that automatically disburse other funds to states are themselves products of past political compromises, with their own sets of winners and losers.
“It makes those who ranted and raved against earmarks feel good,” Robert Reischauer, the Urban Institute president and former chief of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said of the GOP ban. “But it is largely cosmetic.”
Spending for earmarks peaked in 2006, when lawmakers diverted $29 billion to hometown projects, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. The numbers have dipped to about $16 billion last year for 9,000 earmarks, thanks to public pressure and the infamy of influence-seekers like the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
That $16 billion is undeniably real money, but it amounts to just half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. Lawmakers carve most earmarks from within agency budgets, so eliminating them would not save money but simply mean it would be spent on something else.
Even if the ban somehow did save $16 billion, it would fail to make a noticeable dent in the federal deficit, which hit a near record $1.3 trillion last year and threatens to remain huge. The shortfalls are being chiefly driven by growing, automatically paid benefit programs like Medicare, a problem that lawmakers have yet to seriously tackle.
Bob Livingston, a lobbyist and former GOP congressman from Louisiana who doled out many earmarks as chairman of one of Congress’ spending committees, said he believes the ban will reduce earmarks but have no real budgetary impact.
“It’s a symbol, and my friends and former colleagues have chosen to bow to a symbol,” he said.
Critics of earmarks say they generally go to senior lawmakers, divert funds from worthier projects and are doled out by leaders in exchange for votes on other bills that drive up spending even further. They are a favorite target of conservatives such as tea party supporters, and the GOP’s effort to eliminate them is a way to please those voters and signal that the party will rein in a bloated government.
“This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington,” Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, in line to be House speaker next year, said Thursday.
Yet earmarks remain popular with many lawmakers who consider it part of their jobs to win money for deserving projects back home — and view the projects as a way to please voters.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was just re-elected over a tea party rival in a campaign where she championed earmarks. She opposes the ban and said Tuesday she “will always fight hard to ensure that Alaska receives its fair share.” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a member of the GOP leadership, said he will back the moratorium but would seek money for his state for emergencies like floods — perhaps opening the door for other lawmakers who might seek earmarks by claiming their states were facing their own problems.
Conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said she supports the ban, but recently told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis that she doesn’t consider home-district transportation projects earmarks because, “there’s a big difference between funding a tea pot museum and a bridge over a vital waterway.”
James Walsh, a former GOP congressman from upstate New York and now a lobbyist, says two earmarks he won for his district became important in Iraq for electronically jamming hidden bombs and locating the source of incoming fire.
“This is how legislatures work,” Walsh said of the trade-offs sometimes involved. “You have to give something to get something.”
Lawmakers trying to circumvent the earmark ban can also:
Hold hearings or stage a high-profile visit to the facility they are trying to fund — a clear signal to bureaucrats that they consider the money a demand, not a request;
Insert vaguely worded provisions into bills that don’t name the destination of the money, but describe criteria that can result in funds heading only to a specific project;
Lobby the administration to include the funds in the budget it sends Congress each year, enhancing the chance that a government agency will use its discretion to provide the money.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press