Future of Earmarks Remains Vague | Citizens Against Government Waste

Future of Earmarks Remains Vague

The WasteWatcher

Predicting the future of earmarks can be a bit like peering into a crystal ball.

During his January 25, 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama declared his intention of vetoing any legislation that reaches his desk containing earmarks. Having worked on the issue since the first Congressional Pig Book was released in 1991, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) wholeheartedly applauded this announcement.

Unfortunately, this victory might be short-lived. Almost immediately following this announcement, the White House released a fact sheet which limited this veto threat to “special interest” earmarks. This leaves the potential for the President to determine what constitutes a “special” or “national interest” earmark. Taxpayers know that all earmarks are equally wasteful and semantics will not be accepted in order to continue any form of earmarking. While some earmarks are easier to criticize than others, all exist outside of the normal, competitive budgetary process.

Despite a two-year moratorium on earmarks, by House and Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats were initially undeterred. In interviews just prior to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected talk of Congress forgoing earmarks, claiming the president “has enough power already.” For the record, Sen. Reid received the eleventh-most earmarks in the Senate in 2010: 158 projects costing taxpayers $223.5 million.

Surprisingly, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) positioned himself on the side of taxpayers on the earmark issue. On February 2, 2011, Sen. Inouye claimed that, while he continued to support Congress’ constitutional right to earmarks, “Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law” due to the President’s veto threat. Whether the legislation slated to take the place of the expiring CR will contain earmarks remains to be seen.

A separate debate presently revolves around the issue. Some in Congress have refused to consider funding for projects such as the F-35 alternate engine to be an earmark, because money for the engine has been written into the language of bills, outside of the normal “Congressionally Directed Spending” section. However, anti-earmark groups, including CAGW, consider the alternate engine to be an earmark because presidents for the last several years have refused to request funding for it and it has been added anonymously to the appropriations bills. Consequently, there may be appropriations bills in the future that are ostensibly “earmark free,” meaning without a “Congressionally Directed Spending” section, but that still contain earmarks in other forms. In addition, those who follow the issue expect legislators to find a new loophole. For instance, “letter-marking” and “phone-marking,” where elected officials contact agency employees to request funding for certain projects, might increase in frequency.

Wherever they are placed in a bill, earmarks exist outside of the normal budgetary process and are inherently wasteful and corrupting. While some elected leaders cling to this archaic method of directing spending, others have embraced the process of reform. It is hardly surprising that the Senate has been the slowest to change its habits, as senators have historically requested the most earmarks. Since a moratorium is only a suspension, not the end of earmarks, it is likely that the Senate will take the first steps to again allow members of Congress to feed at the trough.

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