December 29, 2010

Having it both ways with earmarks

With House Republicans adopting a ban on earmarks and the Senate coming just short of doing the same, it was beginning to look like earmarks were on their last legs. Voters were fed up with the unseemly process of pork-barrel politics and representatives were eager to distance themselves from symbols of out-of-control government spending and waste.

But are earmarks really on their way out, or will they just take different — and more opaque — forms from now on?

The New York Times carried a story on Monday highlighting how earmark-critic Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was able to send a letter to the Department of Education, which then disbursed $1.1 million in stimulus funds to a local Illinois school district. While correlation is not causation, the connection is hard to miss.

The article highlights how representatives can use alternatives to earmarking such as "phonemarking" and "lettermarking," whereby representatives make phone calls or send letters to agencies asking them to spend money on specific projects in their home state. In addition, there are "soft earmarks," which involve representatives giving subtle "suggestions" to agency heads on how to spend money, and "undisclosed earmarks," whereby a representative will increase an agency's budget and then request that agency to spend the extra money on the representative’s pet projects. All of this takes place outside of the traditional congressional process.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) says the earmark ban still has merit because the alternative methods are all non-binding, while the traditional earmarking process is binding. Perhaps, but at the end of the day the agencies are going to be tempted to do everything they can to stay in the good graces of the representatives who decide their annual budgets.

Going forward, decisions will have to be made on where the right balance between earmarks and transparency should be. If an earmark ban reduces the amount of earmarks but also makes tracking them harder, is that better than having more earmarks but also more earmark transparency?