11/17/2010

Are ALL Earmarks Bad?

Earmarks Ban?  Not So Fast
by Brian Johnson
November 17, 2010

We all hear of how earmarks are bankrupting the country.  We even refer to earmarks as "pork", giving voters the impression that all earmarks are just reckless spending.  But is this really the case?

We elect Representatives and Senators to represent our interests in the districts that we live in.  This does not just require them to go and vote for or against new laws.  It also requires them to vote on budgets, and how the money in those budgets is going to be spent. With over 500 people in Congress jockeying for their "share of the pie", it gets pretty competitive.  Those other 534 people are also representing their districts and their constituents, trying to get money for projects.  Some of those projects are legitimate.

Congress passes an omnibus spending bill, or a bill which has billions of dollars authorized.  Some of the money in it is non-discretionary, while some is discretionary. Within the bill, money is appropriated for transportation projects, or agriculture, etc.  However, it may not be for specific projects.  Now your Congressman may write a bill for a specific project and send it to committee, in hopes that it gets to a floor vote and passed..

Here is the kicker.  All of those other Congressman are vying for that same, finite amount of money in the omnibus bill.  Let me use where I live as an example.  Here in the San Joaquin Valley, known as the 'Breadbasket of the World', farmers have been hurting for several years due to lack of water to the crops.  This is creating massive unemployment, farms going under, and farmland going fallow.  The reason is that the EPA is blocking water through the pumps to protect a 1 1/2 inch fish called a smelt, which lives in the San Joaquin Delta. They would have you believe that it lives only in the Delta, but they range from here to Maine. This one, to set it apart, they named the 'Delta smelt'.  Where I'm originally from, in the Midwest, we called them 'bait'.  The sick part of this is that the farmers pay, up front, for their water each year.  The last couple of years they have been 'allocated' anywhere from about 10%-40% of the water they paid for.  No, they don't get a refund.

Now, my Congressman writes a bill which would codify that the pumps be turned on a water sent to the farmers. After all, his constituents are hurting, and he is there to represent the people of his district.  So he submits his bill to committee.  However, the committee will not pass it. This happens several times.  It may be that somebody on the committee doesn't like him, or they have an eye on some of that same money.  It doesn't matter.  His constituents are hurting.

Finally a bill comes to the floor of the House.  It's for necessary bridge infrastructure repair in Minnesota.  My Congressman says that he wants to add his bill as a 'rider' on the bridge bill, and if it is not added he will use every means at his disposal to hold up the bridge bill.  It is added to the bill as an 'earmark'.  The bill passes , with the earmark. The pumps are turned on. Farmers get water. People get re-hired.

Certainly, this is a simplified way that the process works.  And there are certainly earmarks which would, without a doubt, classify as pork, and are done as political favors.  Those should exposed, and shouted from the highest mountain. But there are also good things that come out of earmarks.  It is we, the voters who also have to be vigilant to the types of spending that your Congressman is advocating for.

Eliminating earmarks is, at best, a symbolic gesture. Earmarks count for so little of the budget as to be nearly inconsequential.  That doesn't mean we don't hold their feet to the fire when they are trying to appropriate money to put a Barbara Boxer Memorial Petting Zoo and Kiddieland in Death Valley. We should.  But, we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water.  There is a place for earmarks in the legislative process.  We, the voters and the media, have some responsibility as well in keeping these politicians on the up and up.  And that may mean voting them out if they abuse their office.
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