February 25, 2009 – Earmark Control

The rationale for earmarks has been their usefulness in getting federal money turned loose for small local projects that would otherwise be bogged down in bureaucracy, acting as a safety valve to fund deserving local needs. This begs the question - why was the money sent to DC in the first place - but I’ll set that aside for now. If eliminated by law or Executive Order in 2009 they'd sneak back in some form by 2011. The pressure won't go away.

The reality is there will always be needy constituents or their representatives lined up in the lobby. Earmarks are currently too readily used as political rewards by unethical representatives. They become a political hot potato for a principled representative feeling pressured to tap the money for the good of his/her constituents because "everyone else is doing it."

Suggestion - institutionalize earmarks in a way that controls the unethical without penalizing the responsible, and takes a baby step toward reducing if not eliminating. Allot an amount to each congressional district (total to be less than the total amount currently devoted to earmarks) and establish it as a grant program within each district. Design a consistent process to fairly evaluate proposals on their merits - urgency, readiness, matching local funds, alignment with federal constitutional responsibilities to the states, and local district priorities. The primary goal needs to be to increase local ability to respond to local needs, sustainably.

I once participated in a conference call between one of my clients and a pair of DC lobbyists, who were coaching my client in how to present the case for an earmark. The earmark requested (and later granted) was for updating the ER of a rural hospital, pretty basic stuff, not too extravagant and not a teapot museum. What I remember most clearly was that it had to be $1.5 million. Less than that wasn't worth the time, more than that wouldn't fly. It really might as well have been a grant request, only it lacked the dispassionate review of a good grant program.

A smart and ethical representative would use a local district council to develop district goals for the grants, de-politicizing and involving grassroots folks in setting priorities. Including a system of accountability to each other in Congress would encourage everyone to act smartly. By starting steps to control the amount, by bringing the process into the daylight, it will eventually be possible to address the larger question of why the local money had to go all the way to DC before coming back to serve local needs and wants.