Monday, July 28, 2008

in defense of earmarks

[The imfamous Bridge to Nowhere, artist's rendering courtesy of Anchorage Daily News]

With news that apparant Congressman-to-be Jason Chaffetz is against all earmarks, I wanted to point out that earmarks in and of themselves are not bad, only the Congress critters that exploit them are (I am looking at you, Alaska delegation).
An after-school learning program in West Valley City, transportation projects in Provo and a nursing program at Utah Valley University are all recipients of federal earmarks that Jason Chaffetz says should have never been funded.
The earmarks are among $9.4 million U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, helped secure for local projects that were slipped into appropriations bills through an earmark process that's frequently criticized as pork barrel spending.

Chaffetz defeated Cannon in a June Republican primary and says he doesn't care if the money would benefit his district or the state — he wants no part of earmarks.

"Until there's reform, I will not ask for them. They're a cancer within the system, and I want to extract them," Chaffetz said by telephone from Washington, D.C.
I suppose if one is going to crusade against earmark abuse and for earmark reform, one has to forego earmarks in one's own district. Yet I don't think kids in West Valley should have to suffer for this cause.
Those earmarks are for fine projects, Chaffetz said, but they shouldn't circumvent the executive branch's competitive-based selection process.

"I think there are ways to get appropriations done for worthwhile projects. It shouldn't be done through the cloak of darkness," he said.
This of course assumes that those in the executive branch in charge of the selection process don't make backroom deals or play favorativism with requests from members of Congress from their political party. And given this Administration's illegally partisan hiring and promotion practices at the DOJ, the conviction of a guy in charge of purchasing policy for the entire government for obstruction of justice and lying to protect his Abramoff-connected buddies (the conviction was overturned on proceedural grounds a month ago), I wouldn't place as much confidence in the executive branch to do the right thing as Chaffetz does.

Earmarks can be a sign of a members power and ability to horse trade, but they can also be a sign of projects that need to be funded at a certain level lest kids in West Valley decide to join gangs rather than shoot pool at an after-school center, for instance. And let's remember this chart as well, and also remember who was in charge of Congress from 1994 until 2006.

(Graphic by the Washington Post, based on Congressional Research Service data)
The first step to curbing Congress' addiction is not to cut off cold turkey, but to reign in abuses and have the people kick out the biggest abusers. If polls are to be believed, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens (Rs-AK)--two of the biggest offenders--will not be a part of the 111th Congress. As long as Congressman/woman's names are attached to their earmarks, and they aren't jammed into phone-book-sized bills at the last minute, we have a good shot at stopping the insanity.


Independence said...

Mr. Oldenburg,

I respectfully submit that the earmarks for the kids in West Valley, and the nursing program at Utah Valley University, and the Provo Bus Transportation projects are NOT worthwhile projects to fund via earmarks.

Reason #1 - Every one of those earmarks should be locally funded. For every earmarked $1 that "came home to Utah" we were also handed the bill for $136 worth of earmarks that went to the other 49 states for their projects that they should have locally funded in their states.

So if instead of using the earmark process we saw West Valley pay for their things, and Provo pay for their projects, etc...all of Utah would be ahead 135 to 1 budget wise)

Reason #2 - Every one of those earmarks came only after the government entity involved (West Valley city, State of Utah Higher Education, the UTA, etc) used OUR tax dollars to hire private lobbyists and those lobbyists then used a portion of that tax money to make donations to Cannon, Matheson, Bishop, the earmark process is now a method of getting your local tax dollars to be laundered through lobbyists into incumbent campaign coffers as "private contributions" to candidates that you may or may not like but in all cases shouldn't be getting campaign donations from your local tax dollars .

In exchange for these laundered contributions, the Congressmen then funnel federal tax dollars back to the government entity that hired the lobbyists with our tax dollars.

This makes the Congressmen look like he is doing a noble thing when what he is really doing is paying off his campaign contributors...and doing a poor job of that as well since it costs us $135 to get $1 worth of earmarks.

Also, Don Young and Ted Stevens et al are all great offenders as you have noted...but unfortunately virtually every Congressman in the country (easily over 400 of the 435 House members I could show you conclusively) are all their co-defendents. This includes the entire Utah delegation of Cannon, Matheson, Bishop, Hatch, and Bennett. This includes almost all members of BOTH parties.

I personally researched this and I stand behind every word, claim, and dollar figure listed above.

Our website explains how all of this happens, focusing specifically on Cannon and Matheson as examples of all the rest of our Country's Congressmen of BOTH parties.

On the website you will find a set of short 9 to 12 minute video presentations that step-by-step will show you exactly how the special interest groups work hand in hand with incumbents to misuse earmarks and pad their pockets at our expense.

I invite you and everyone else to take a moment and view these short videos before you ever again vote for any of the incumbents...and before concluding that earmarks fund worthwhile projects.

Thank You,

Oldenburg said...


Thanks for your informative comment and there is much to agree with you on the merits (and I don't doubt your figures). However, there is a meritorious reason to fund things at a national or even state, rather than local level: because what the earmark promises to provide is a good for all Americans, even if they never set foot in Utah. Some states get more than their "share" in earmarks vis a vis their federal income taxes. Some of this is a product of the nature of the Senate--i.e. South Dakota had the Democratic Leader until 2004 but had a small population, Alaska had a very senior (Senate President Pro Tempore after Strom Thurmond retired) Republican Senator in the right committees--but some of it has to do with need.

As for your second reason, I am sure that these lobbists charge a lot less to represent say West Valley than Exxon Mobile. Moreover, I doubt every single one of these lobbyists for state and local governments (and non-profits) give a "personal" campaign contribution. Or that such a contribution has nearly as much effect as the mayor or governor or exec. dir. of a non-profit paying Congressman X a visit.

Also, some of these earmarks have both political AND real world value. For example, the St. George Airport. Rep. Matheson is working hard to get money to develop such an airport because a) St. George is a rapidly growing city near another rapidly growing city (Las Vegas) and b) he was nearly defeated in 2002 because of all the votes against him in Washington County.

I doubt that 400 of the 435 members of House are as corrupt as Don Young or Ted Stevens, who violated multiple laws (including the Constitution) in out and out tit or tat behavior. Now many are probably more corrupted by their decades in DC than they themselves imagine, but not at the level of depravity of Young or Stevens.

Utah said...

It isn't that good hasn't happen using earmarks, it is that the whole motivation is wrong. Earmarks have been used to buy votes between members of congress, and to buy votes from taxpayers. Re: The West Valley City, after school project, there are over 100,000 people in WVC, and there are almost no residents that had even heard of the project, until this latest discussion of earmarks.

I have seen "local" earmarks, when a Utah State Rep. funded school supplies, since the local school boards were not doing it. This was public funding going around the system, to fund a need. The difference was that the funding was not for a specific district, but for the entire state. I would have less of a problem with earmarks for the US, if they were debated to see if there is really a need not being filled.

I have landed in a small plane on the hill which is St. George, Utah's airport. I have seen the houses being built into that hill. If it made sense, money wise, for the airport to be moved, and long term, the city would make it back, why not bond for the cost. If it is too big for St. George, I could see why Utah might help, but I don't see why the US should help move the airport. If the purpose was public safety, such as putting a control tower there, perhaps, but this is a land grab move, with the US government trying to help developers.

Jason Chaffetz is correct, and he is not alone. John McCain, if he is lucky enough to win will get rid of the whole system of earmarks.

The US can not afford to continue to use these tools to buy votes. That is one good reason to vote for Jason Chaffetz and others like him.

Oldenburg said...

Perhaps you are right and the motivation is wrong, and perhaps Frank is right and the method is inefficient. But the problem is, what would you replace earmarks with?

Politicans will always look to provide things that their constituents want or need, and they will always seek to increase their power/influence.

If we go to a BRAC model of creating line-items, then the politicking will shift to who gets named to the commission and indirect lobbying to those nominees. You don't think ex-Rep. Hansen has nothing to do with Hill Air Force Base being spared from the axe?

What about a line-item veto? Well first off, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution would need to be amended in order for that to exist. And then you are taking appropriations power away from the Congress and giving it to the President, who hate to break it you, is also a politican.

John McCain has railled against some earmarks, but has pushed for certain projects for his lobbyist friends. He too is not immune from the problem. And when he proposed banning all earmarks, reporters asked him about specific ones, like foreign aid to Israel and Egypt, causing him to backpedal on his pledge.

Truth is, there is no perfect system. But if we make the process as transparent as possible, we will reduce the corrupting influence/potential of earmarks. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

The Lady Logician said...

Fantastic discussion guys. Part of the problem is that local governments have (for a long time now) ceded their responsibilities to higher levels of government. Cities defer to counties who defer to the state who defer to the feds. What needs to be done (IMHO) is we need to bring government back to it's closest level. We should be sending more of our tax dollars to our cities instead of the feds. If the cities were getting the lions share (as opposed to the fed) then they could fund their own projects as needed.

Short of that ever happening (which I know it won't) we need to have a merit based system of awarding dollars for these projects as opposed to just writing them in with no accountability. The only way to do that is to completely shut the system down and FORCE Congress to fix this mess.


Independence said...

m'Lady Logic and Utah and Oldenburg...

It is an EXCELLENT conversation.

I believe that there is a solution for "awarding" dollars that would end the abuses that come with the current system of earmarks...including the problems with motivation and inefficiency

It's called the "Fixed Pie Budget" which will be explained in the "Article 6" video on the Independence Caucus website. This video will be finished and posted within the next 24 to 72 hours...(sometime Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.)

In the meantime, if you haven't seen Articles 1 through 5, I would invite any and all to take a few minutes to view them and then bookmark the webpage to come back and see article 6 when it gets posted.

Afterwards, we would love to see your feedback about the "Fixed Pie Budget" as it relates to this growing problem of allocating tax dollars.


"To advocate an efficient, sound, hones government is neither left-wing nor right-wing, it is just plain right."-- J. Peter Grace

Oldenburg said...

First to LL and then to Frank (and thanks for both of your thoughtful comments)

LL-- Your idea of bringing back the authority to the local level is a Jeffersonian one, one not held by Jefferson himself once he got into the White House. Our Constitutions (both our state and federal) has set up the limits of state, local, and federal power. When combined with the tax bases of each, you see why earmarks evolved. The federal government can tax our income, and profits made by engaging in interstate/international commerce, like stocks and bonds. The state government can also tax income, along with practically everything else. All that local governments get is sales tax (and usually only a portion of it, as well as tourist taxes) and property taxes. If Granite School District for instance had enough money to pay for good teachers, special education, and school supplies from its local tax base, it would not be asking Rep. Matheson and Sens. Hatch and Bennett for help. Since I don't see people willing to hike their property and sales taxes as well as slash their federal taxes, I don't see how your first idea would work.

Since you pretty much conceed that won't happen, you propose eliminating earmarks to force Congress to develop a more meritorious way to distribute the goodies. And my reply again is, what makes you think that whatever replaces earmarks will be any better way? BRAC and line-item veto solutions just shove the dirt under the rug. Reforming the system to mandate transparancy is far more important than setting up some "fair" criterion that will assuridly be violated some day.


If by fixed pie, you mean something like PAYGO, well then you have the legacy of Clinton to thank. He made balancing budgets a sacrament of the Democratic Party. This will force Congress Critters to choose a bridge to nowhere over grandma's Rx drugs. And hopefully better choices due to political pressure. Again however, PAYGO would only be a law, which lawmakers could change at any time for any reason. Or do you mean something tougher like Gramm-Rudman or its state equivailant TABOR? TABOR has proven to be a disaster in states like neighboring Colorado and the oposite extreme of California is not much better. Gramm-Rudman was never passed into law because it was too dracionan.

But if you mean that Congress will only get to goof off with so much money, well then there is a merit to capping earmarks so that truely meritorious programs might be moved out of discretionary spending and into mandatory spending (or via assurances by the various departments and angencies that project X will continue sans earmark).

PS may screen name is Oldenburg, not my last name.

Oldenburg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frankie Ray said...

Greetings from the past of a long ago post Sir Oldenburg:

The Independence Caucus has posted their endorsements for 359 Congressional races, and a new video "Your Invitation to the Bailout Tea Party" at

Check it out and let me know what you think!