Clean up executive earmark process

Congress is often attacked for “earmarking” taxpayers’ dollars.  Some of that criticism has been deserved, notably when lawmakers have earmarked projects behind closed doors or airdropped late projects in during conference committees.

For Republicans who request projects through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have required full transparency, making all requests open to the public and prohibiting airdrops.  

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However, the process of Executive Branch earmarking has not come under similar scrutiny.  No attention is paid when non-elected bureaucrats make the same spending decisions – behind closed doors, with no accountability to taxpayers, and without consulting elected officials.

The stimulus provides the most recent examples of Executive earmarks.  Under the stimulus, DOT was provided authority to distribute $1.5 billion in TIGER grants around the country.  The intent of those grants is to create jobs, particularly in the most economically hard hit areas.

Logic dictates that almost all of these grants should be awarded to distressed areas.  However, the Administration sent only 60% of the TIGER grants to regions most in need of assistance.  Over half of the funding was distributed to states with lower than average unemployment rates.

Unelected bureaucrats determined that Florida, with the 7th highest unemployment rate, would receive no TIGER grant funding at all.  Despite 115 project applications from a state with an 11.8 percent jobless rate, DOT bureaucrats concluded – behind closed doors – that no help was necessary from a program to benefit our most economically embattled areas.  

A similar lack of transparency was apparent when the Administration in January announced $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed and passenger rail projects.  There has been no clear connection between how applications were evaluated and how grants were awarded.

Almost all of the selected projects will not yield rail systems that would be considered high-speed in other countries that operate such systems.  The one U.S. transportation corridor where high-speed rail makes the most sense, the Northeast Corridor, was essentially left behind.  And the 2008 law that opens high-speed rail development to private sector participation was completely ignored.

The biggest beneficiary from the high-speed rail grant process was Amtrak.  76 of the 78 projects selected will go to lines that already are or will be operated by Amtrak.  

The American people deserve to know how decisions were made – with no input from their elected officials – to spend these billions in stimulus grants, mostly on Amtrak projects that offer no hope of achieving true high-speed rail.

In order to shed light on how bureaucrats made these decisions to spend our tax dollars, I have requested that DOT release all information used to evaluate the rail and TIGER grant applications.

This practice of Executive earmarking has not been limited to this Administration.  

During the George W. Bush presidency, the FY 2007 transportation appropriations bill, which included 1,155 publicly vetted transportation projects submitted by Members of Congress, failed to become law.  As a consequence, over $1 billion in funding intended for projects in Congressional districts across the country instead went to projects selected by DOT bureaucrats, including $853 million for just five projects in a handful of urban areas like New York, Miami and San Francisco.

This is another example of the Executive branch earmarking tax dollars behind closed doors, with no transparency, rather than elected officials directing those funds.  Setting federal policy and priorities is an essential responsibility of the Legislative branch.  No one in Washington knows better the needs of their districts and constituents.

Although Congressional earmarking has received a bad reputation because of some prior abuses, the answer is not to completely eliminate the process and let unelected government employees determine all funding priorities, but to ensure a transparent process that publicly vets Congressional project requests.

Republican House Members follow a stringent, open earmark disclosure policy for projects before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Members of Congress who earmark funds also answer to the people who elected them.  Bureaucrats who earmark funds do not, and it’s time we got some answers about how these unelected officials are spending our tax dollars.

Mica is the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.