Congress may lift so-called “earmark ban” next year

There is political chatter in Washington, D.C. that Congress may alter its self-imposed ban on earmarks come January. Earmarks are the local pet projects of lawmakers that the federal government pays for. As APRN’s Peter Granitz tells us, it’s unlikely to revert back to rampant times of the earlier part of this century.

Let’s take a step back and remember just how Congress got to the point of earmarks, one of the hallmarks of holding elected, federal office.

“From the very beginning of American history through close to the middle of the 20th century, appropriations were highly itemized for specific projects, specific activities, specific items that a government agency was going to spend money on,” says University of Maryland Professor Allen Schick, an expert on the federal budgeting process.

He says when the government started its rapid expansion, post World War II, line items – the specific projects the government funds – grew into broader categories. That, Professor Schick says, gave more power to the executive branch. Because, this is a jump back to civics class, Congress authorizes the money for the agencies the president oversees.

“The broader the appropriation, the more control the executive branch has over spending,” says Schick. “Congress has responded to this in recent decades, significantly expanding the volume of earmarks.”

Those earmarks paid for all sorts of projects, from landing strips at airports, to rural health centers, to attempts to build a bridge to Gravina Island. That last one was lampooned nationally as the bridge to nowhere. It’s just one of countless projects watchdogs and many lawmakers deemed wasteful.

So with reluctance, last year Congress opted to temporarily ban earmarks. It’s had some effect. Giant, multi-year pieces of legislation, like the farm and highway bills, have stalled or taken longer than normal to pass. That’s in part because of the political climate, but it’s also because lawmakers can’t trade a ‘yes’ vote for federal funding for back home – as Senator Ben Nelson learned when he was chided for the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. That agreement would have helped pay for Nebraska’s Medicaid tab in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote on the Affordable Care Act. It was ultimately removed.

The transportation bill that recently passed included more than $30 million for the Alaska Railroad. The Senate version zeroed out funding. A Senate committee said the railroad didn’t qualify for the earmark it had historically received, because the money was allocated for public transportation.

But the final product had the money restored because Representative Don Young served on the committee that melded the House and Senate versions of the bill. And that giant bill doesn’t mention the Alaska Railroad.

Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense says Congressman Young manipulated the bill’s language to include the funding.

“You write it such that you set up the criteria as how to get the funding, and the only place that can meet the criteria is the Alaska Railroad,” Ellis explains.

He says that’s just one example of members of Congress flouting the earmark ban. A ban that some lawmakers say is going to be removed come January.

Congressman Young, a vocal proponent of the earmarking process, is one of the legislators who believes the ban will be altered, though it may not be easy to do. There still is considerable opposition to the spending from deficit hawks in his own Republican party – especially from the 87 freshmen in this year’s class – and for the potential new members come January who are now running on fiscally tight platforms.

“There’s going to be a big fight for those that oppose it, because it’s not going to be for any individual company or anything like that. It’ll be for municipalities, nonprofit organizations,” Young says.

The idea that nonprofits could qualify for earmarks has government watchdogs up in arms. Steve Ellis says the plan has been tested before.

“I guarantee you the cowgirl hall of fame, which was an earmark, was a nonprofit, the teapot museum was a nonprofit,” he says.

Of course not all nonprofits would look for federal help.

Still, many in Washington worry that political groups disguised as social welfare organizations would reap extra benefits from the new earmark rules. Some, like Crossraods GPS and are spending millions of dollars in this year’s election even though they are supposed to promote the public good.

If the chatter moves to action, Congressman Young is right, there will be an enormous political fight. By law, Congress needs to shrink federal budgets.

And one thing also remains certain. Even without earmarks, Alaska will continue to get loads of money from Washington. The Census bureau reports that the federal government spends more per capita in Alaska than any other state. And much of that money comes from the Pentagon – the largest budget in the government, and the one many lawmakers are afraid to cut.

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