Curse of the midnight earmark

A principle as old as Congress is that once a bill is passed it is final. There are no do-overs or changes unless the full Congress votes them in a subsequent bill. But strange things do happen, and one of those is causing furor on Capitol Hill.

The 2005 highway bill contained an earmark — a lawmaker’s pet project — for $10 million to widen and improve I-75 in Ft. Myers, Fla. After the bill was passed by both the House and the Senate but before it went to the president, staffers for GOP Rep. Don Young, like his fellow Alaska lawmakers a master of the pork process, changed the earmark to fund an interchange on I-75. That would have materially benefited developers who had raised $40,000 for Young and who owned 4,000 acres next to the proposed interchange.

When the change came to light, many lawmakers were outraged. Thursday, by a bipartisan margin of 64 to 28, the Senate voted to ask for a federal criminal investigation into how the earmark was altered. If there was a precedent for the request, no one could immediately recall it.

Earmarks are not in and of themselves bad, but they tend to add up — over $18 billion last year and that was a down year; they escape normal legislative scrutiny; and they are prone to abuse as in this case. Young says he backed the interchange because of community support for the project but news accounts say the local county planning board is opposed to it and has rejected money for the interchange three times.

Clearly this bears investigation, but nothing is simple in Congress. Young is a House member and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sees the Senate vote as an unconstitutional intrusion on her turf. The House leadership believes it’s a matter for the House ethics committee, but anti-earmark crusader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says he’s been asking the committee for a year to investigate with no results.

Meanwhile, the earmark was returned to its original language in a technical corrections bill passed earlier by the House and this week, 88 to 2 by the Senate. The investigation may or may not go anywhere since the lawmakers have a lot of other things to occupy them. And the earmarks? They’ll survive, and quite likely strange things will continue to happen.


  1. jgw

    Earmarks are ALL bad! Its really pretty simple. An earmark, for instance, takes money from whatever the bill it is attached to. If its for the military, for instance, then the military gets that much less. There has also been recent exposes of just what happens. In my state, Washington, for instance, my elected have built a boat, for the federal government, that NO agency wants – its cost, I think, was 15 million dollars. In another case my elected have been earmarking for a software company which, basically, means that my government is being forced to use obsolete software (there are no other customers). In both cases the recipients kicked back, er… donated, to the re-election campaigns of the earmarkers. Its been pretty well documented that virtually ALL earmarks involve ‘donations’ to them that earmark. (anybody but politicians would goto prison for this kind of stuff!)

    It may also be of interest that a supposed deadlocked congress has been able to collude in these earmarks. Nothing gets through without majority approval and they ALL, seemingly make it through – hence I don’t think collusion is to harsh a phrase to use. Think on it; they can collude to get donations but can’t do the same for the nation’s business. Kinda puts things into perspective and goes far to explain how over 40,000 (THOUSAND!) registered lobbyists can make their living in Washington, DC.

    It might be cumbersome, but its time for congress to start voting on ALL money expenditures. Lump them if they want but go on record. (I know, more wishful thinking)

    I won’t even get into the ’emergency’ funding of wars, et al.

    Port Angeles, WA