A model for congressional earmarking — the Dayton Way

In recent weeks members have once again turned their attention to the seemingly wasteful and secretive nature of the congressional earmarking process. Much of the public’s discomfort has centered on a sense that earmarks are determined without the benefit of an open and transparent process. In Dayton, Ohio, we have utilized for many years a deliberative, consultative process that could serve as a model for the nation. The Dayton process is an open, region-wide evaluation of the community’s priorities. It creates a sense of consensus and also eliminates any appearance of impropriety.

The Dayton Development Coalition is an economic development and advocacy group that serves the 12-county Dayton region. It manages an open, bipartisan process that results in ranked lists of community priorities in several categories, including economic development, higher education, government services, health and human services, transportation and quality of life.

Any potential earmark beneficiary can submit a detailed application to the coalition. The proposal includes documentation and a full explanation of the project’s benefit to the community. The coalition convenes subject-specific panels made up of community experts in each category to review the requests. Each panel makes ranking recommendations. A broader committee made up of business, government and civic leaders reviews the panel recommendations to ensure that the resulting list accurately reflects the region’s needs. Finally, the coalition delivers a lengthy document summarizing the projects and rankings to each member of the region’s congressional delegation.

For the community, the process allows a broad coalition of public and private leaders to speak in one voice. It promotes long-term strategic planning. Instead of earmark requests being scattershot projects from year to year, the community can establish multi-year goals in economic development, transportation, defense, higher education, quality of life and human services, and advance projects that support those goals. This approach is more likely to bring into consideration proposals that reflect a broad range of community interests, including social services that benefit the poorest and neediest of our citizens.

The congressional delegation has the benefit of receiving a list of community priorities that have been developed, reviewed and ranked in an open and fair process. The resulting priorities can have bipartisan support. Moreover, the airing of earmark requests before they are submitted to Congress ensures quality projects and eliminates any sense of impropriety.

The priority list developed through this process remains advisory. The responsibility for selecting earmarks remains with Congress and the elected members who represent the project sponsors. Those members are charged with using their best judgment, which may sometimes differ from the community ranking. However, there is a higher burden to demonstrate that a project that did not go through the process is the best earmark candidate.

The Dayton region’s process should be a model for other regions. It provides sunshine to the earmark process without diminishing the ability of members of Congress to fund causes that benefit their constituents. It is a time-consuming effort and requires extensive regional cooperation to make it work. Still, the concepts of openness, speaking in one voice, strategic planning and taking care of all the needs of a community should be welcome to any region that asks its members of Congress for earmarked funding.

Turner represents Ohio’s 3rd congressional district. Hall served the district for 24 years.