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Capitol on Money
2.17.06
Politics and Economy:
Money and Politics
More on This Story:
Earmarks, Pork and Federal Budgets

The Abramoff scandal has politicians and the public taking a hard look at the relationship between money and politics once again. Indeed, in his State of the Union Address, the President singled out a common part of the budget process for criticism — earmarks.

I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform, because the federal budget has too many special interest projects.
Most Americans are familiar with the term — and the idea of pork-barrel spending — the notion that a politician works to get government funds to benefit constituents often in return for political support. "Earmarking" is subtly different — referring to the insertion of a special funding provision for a specific named project into legislation. An earmark also faces criticism since these appropriations are often added without scrutiny of other lawmakers. Or as THE ECONOMIST defines it for their non-U.S. politics savvy readers: "Earmarks, for the uninitiated, are spending projects that are directly requested by individual members of Congress and are not subject to competitive bidding."

Of course, garnering monies and project for constituents is very much part of a legislator's role. But critics of earmarks say that often earmarked projects aren't a good use of taxpayer dollars. They also worry that earmarks are another way for lobbyist dollars to put lobbyist priorities above those of others. And, as earmarks are individual efforts — lobbyist may only have to convince only one legislator to move their case forward. And critics say, under current practice, it's not always clear which member of Congress inserted which earmark.

Those who track money in politics have noted that the use of earmarks in appropriations bills has sky rocketed in recent years. The House Appropriations Committee receives about 35,000 individual spending requests per year. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that earmarks have grown rapidly — from 1,300 in 1994 to 14,000 last year.

Earmark Reform Efforts

Ridding the budget process of abusive earmarks has a number of backers in Congress — among the most vociferous are Republicans Tom Coburn, the freshman senator from Oklahoma and John McCain, and Democrats Russ Feingold and Diane Feinstein. McCain, Feingold and Coburn are among the members sponsoring the "Pork-Barrel Reduction Act " which "would allow senators to raise points of order against special projects, or earmarks, that are attached to spending bills without having been approved by the relevant committee. Under the procedure, which also applies to policy changes embedded in spending bills, 60 votes would be needed to override the point of order and keep the provision in the bill."

The Act would mandate a greater degree of transparency. Each earmark would have to be described in detail and its sponsor would have to be identified. In addition, the House-Senate compromise bills and appropriations committee conference reports would have to be made available to senators at least two days before they are expected to vote on them. The Act also requires lobbyists disclosure when they have made efforts to secure earmark provisions.

Some critics say that the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act still doesn't go far enough because it is limited to appropriations bills and does not address earmarking in authorization bills. Senators Trent Lott and Diane Feinstein have authored a reform bill which contains many of McCain's bill provisions but does not discriminate between appropriations and authorizations. Critics of that bill contend that it is not as strong on cutting down earmarks and pork.

Lawmakers are not the only ones concerned about earmarks. Several universities, including MIT and the University of Michigan, have resolved not to accept any funds which come for earmarks. Their reasoning — such projects are generally not peer reviewed and thus run counter to scientific and research policies.

Following the Money

According to THE WASHINGTON POST, "annual fees paid to registered lobbyists reached $2.1 billion in 2004...a 40 percent increase from 1999. For 2005, lobbying revenue is on pace to rise by at least $300 million." THE HILL reported in January 2006, that "PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks lobbying spending, reported this week that companies and other special interests spent $1.16 billion to lobby Congress and federal agencies during the first part of last year." It was a new six-month record for lobbying spending.

Of course not everybody's earmark is everbody's waste. Use our collection of reference sites to track lobbying dollars, follow budget appropriations and priorites and make up your own mind.

Sources: "Clients' Rewards Keep K Street Lobbyists Thriving," Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, THE WASHINGTON POST, February 14, 2006; "Lawmakers Seeking Curbs on Special Spending Requests", THE NEW YORK TIMES CARL HULSE, February 8, 2006; "Hobbling the Lobbyists," THE ECONOMIST, January 26, 2006; Power Strugge Over Pork," THE HILL, Jonathan Allen, February 14, 2006; ""Match Point for Doctor No," THE ECONOMIST, Janunary 19, 2006; MIT Office of Sponsored Programs; University of Michigan Research.

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