A case for earmarks

Does the public understand earmarks? If they did, would the majority of them change their mind? The argument against earmarks is replete with myths.  “It lowers the budget,” is the cry heard from the anti-earmark zealots. The fact is that the elimination of earmarks does nothing to the budget levels. The small fraction (1-2%) of departmental and agency budgets represented by earmarks remain in the appropriated funding. The only decision is who makes the decisions how to spend it. The decision moves from the member of Congress who is in-tune with his district’s needs to an anonymous Administration bureaucrat who often is out of touch with the troubles of a locality. He or she goes by the numbers rather than the people’s lives that the monies might positively impact.

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How about grants?  Well for small communities like those for which I have worked, the idea of hiring a grant writer is out of the question and no one on the small staff of such communities has the expertise to write a competitive proposal.

One of my former clients is a very poor rural county in the South. Its population is 83% minority, unemployment is at 18%. The overwhelming majority of children are on the subsidized lunch program. It is desperately in need of economic development. The county has no hospital or emergency medical services. It relies on a neighboring county 30 minutes away. The county has an interstate highway bisecting it, but for those 20 miles there is nothing only trees and darkness. There are no gas stations, restaurants, or motels. The reason? The county cannot afford to put water and sewer along the land beside the highway. Its bond rating is so poor that it can’t borrow the money. Before the earmark ban took effect this poor county asked their congressional delegation for support for a $6 million (or part of) earmark. The project promised real jobs. What a wonderful thing, going from public assistance to a paying job. But the county was left proverbially high and dry because of the earmark elimination.

Earmarks in the past have funded many meritorious projects from weapons systems to educational programs. The infrastructure area for public water and sewer projects is admittedly not sexy, but what is more vital to our lives than these services?

A success story? One my clients is a vast mostly forested beautiful county which hosts a National Forest. The historical past of the post-civil war period saw the settlement of small communities of former slaves in rural unpopulated areas, in this case, the forest which became the National Forest. Cut off from larger towns, the total population of three communities is about 750 souls.

Unfortunately their source of water was wells which were becoming progressively contaminated by the intrusion of salt water from the sea and a high iron content. There was so much iron in the water that it was orange, smelled foul, rotted teeth and was a serious public health problem.

With the joint help of the congressional delegation, the county was able to secure an EPA earmark, with the county matching 45% of the cost, to complete a 17 miles stretch of pipeline to bring pure water—and fire protection—to these communities. This project mattered to people and to the quality of their lives if not their lives themselves.

Is this pork? No, this is our tax dollars helping to ensure public health and safety. It is an appropriate function of congressional prerogative to provide concrete and meaningful assistance to their people.

It was interesting that in the Republican Presidential primary former Senator Santorum and former Speaker Gingrich, for a moment, defended earmarks.  I believe both of them rightly know that earmarks are an exercise of a congressional right imbedded in the Constitution. Certainly over the past 235 years, Congress has directly funded thousands of projects from the first lighthouse, entire navy fleets, Polio eradication and monuments to the fallen.

Moore is a legislative and public policy consultant.


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