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End of the Earmark?
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January 9, 2009

Could January 2009 be remembered as the beginning of the end of the earmark as we know it?

As the Federal government contemplates taking on further debt to finance a huge economic stimulus bill, some budget hawks think they have the momentum to end the practice once and for all.

And they may be right. On January 6, citing the urgency of the Federal government's financial situation, President-elect Barack Obama stated that he wanted to "ban all earmarks, the process by which individual members insert pet projects without review," from the economic stimulus bill he is proposing to Congress. That same day, the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriation Committees announced new transparency requirements for legislators' pet projects, including posting them online.

The following day, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Claire McCaskill (D-MI) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- while praising the President-elect's proclamation -- unveiled legislation to eliminate the practice completely. Among other things, the Senators argued that "unauthorized" earmarks undermine Americans' confidence in their government, something Senator Coburn warned is especially dangerous during a recession:

This is an issue about confidence. We're in the deepest recession in 50 years. And the answer to getting out of a recession is competency and the confidence in the consumer that tomorrow is better, the day is brighter. And the problem is, as long as earmarks exist the way they do today, we're never going to have the confidence of the American people that we have their best interest at heart.

But many in Congress still see earmarking as an effective way to serve their constituents. The last time Congress considered reforming the practice, two of the most vocal defenders of status quo, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) and Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), argued in a letter to their colleagues that earmarking is not only acceptable, but the proper and constitutional way for Congress to appropriate funds:

Put simply, the framers of the Constitution clearly stated that Congress, not the President or federal bureaucrats, should allocate funding for the various functions of the federal government. Ending the practice of earmarking would transfer massive funding authority to the President and the federal agencies in defiance of the Constitution.
And while others may not so vocally defend the practice, most members still proudly display funding they've secured for their constituents on their Web sites.

In the current economic and political climate, earmark opponents may overcome the inertia of business as usual, but they themselves acknowledge that the battle may be a tough one.

Are all earmarks bad? As noted above, many politicians and citizens alike would say "no." Senators McCain and Feingold said they hope to eliminate "unauthorized earmarks" with their bill. But what makes an earmark unauthorized?

Part of the confusion comes from the multiple uses of the word "earmark." Any appropriations bill must first be approved by a committee before it reaches the Senate floor. These bills emerge from committee full of funds "earmarked" to be spent in specific ways, even identifying companies goods must be purchased from. Earmarks inserted in committee are voted on in an open and traceable way, and Senators McCain and Feingold call these "authorized earmarks."

For years, though, Congress members have inserted additional earmarks at all stages of the process, right up until the bill is passed. These "unauthorized" earmarks are the secretive, largely untraceable practice the Senators hope to ban with their new bill.

Some budget hawks would like all earmarks eliminated, leaving funds to be distributed by competitive grant and bidding processes only. Earmarkwatch, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, explains the many definitions of earmarks here.

References and Reading:
"Why Earmarks Matter"
by Ryan Alexander, President of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"Obama will ban earmarks from stimulus bill "
CNN, January 6, 2009.

"Obama Warns of Trillion Dollar Deficits"
By Jeff Zeleny and Edmund L. Andrews, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 6, 2009.

"McCain, Feingold want to eliminate earmarks with new bill"
by David Heath, THE SEATTLE TIMES, January 7, 2009.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers sits down with United Steelworkers' International President Leo Gerard to discuss seeking economic justice for workers in the middle of an economic crisis and how he sees the future of American manufacturing. Gerard shares his thoughts on how unions will fare under the Obama administration, what kind of stimulus might be needed and what the future of American industry might look like.

EXPOSÉ ON THE JOURNAL: Mr. Heath Goes Back to Washington
Get an update on the SEATTLE TIMES reporters who uncovered how members of Congress had awarded federal dollars for questionable purposes to companies in local Congressional districts — often to companies whose executives, employees or PACs have made campaign contributions to their legislators.

Can Congress pass meaningful earmark reform? What's actually in the fine print of The Fiscal Discipline, Earmark Reform and Accountability Act of 2009, S. 162.

What are the challenges facing the incoming Obama administration?

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