Maybe that’s a little extreme. But, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government watchdog, reported this week that there was “$6.5 billion worth of unspent earmarks from the most recent transportation funding bill” passed in 2005. The group is calling the unspent money “disappearmarks.”
This comes a week after Rep. Betsy Markey, (D-Colo.), introduced a bill that would redirect some $700 million in funds from not even the last transportation bill, but rather from earmarks that are over a decade old (back when President Clinton was signing legislation).
Over the years, much has been made of congressional earmarks. Most recently, with Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere’” when Rep. Don Young (R) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R) brought home $223 million to link the remote town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the more remote island of Gravina (population 50). In the end, the project never happened after much hullabaloo by politicians and the media.
However, members of Congress like to point out that earmarks for transportation account for only 10 percent of total funding. But, that still comes out to billions. Members of Congress also like to point out that they know how best to spend tax dollars in their districts. As Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.) said last year on the Senate floor, “That there is something inherently evil, wicked or criminal or wrong with [earmarks], it’s just not the case … Otherwise, what happens? We give the money to the agency downtown and they decide where to spend it … It isn’t as if the money won’t be spent. Oh, it will be spent. But it may not be spent as effectively or for projects that are as valuable.”
In most cases, an earmark will go unused if the state or local agency receiving it can’t raise matching funds to get the chosen project started. In other cases, like with the “Bridge to Nowhere,” money should have never been allocated in the first place and, as a result, it goes to waste.
Nearly a year ago, the law funding America’s transportation system — from highways to bus lanes to railways to bike lanes — expired, but it has been extended with continuing-legislation and deficit spending to keep the country moving. The bill in-waiting will cost upwards of $500 billion six years from when it’s passed. In the meantime, there’s some spare change under the cushions of Congress that need some turning out.