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Earmarks are back in the spotlight. For years, of course, we were out of whack
entirely, as the earmark system careened out of control, resulting in not just a
lot of added spending, but in a genuine climate for corruption. When every
Member of Congress knew that he or she had a huge sum in projects and contracts
to allocate as the Member saw fit, with no close scrutiny, no real transparency,
and a green light from leaders to use the process as a fundraising tool, it was
the Gilded Age Redux.
We had Members like ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) who engaged in
outright bribery, including creating a menu for contractors to choose from–for
X dollars or considerations, this size contract, for Y dollars, this earmarked
project, and so on. We also had Members like Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who
steered earmarks that appeared to benefit relatives, friends and staffers, and
others who made sure to benefit themselves, via campaign contributions or other
ways. One way, still not adequately investigated or enforced, was for lawmakers
to create earmarks that enhanced their real estate holdings; the most notorious
was former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who became rich when an earmark for
a highway interchange that was not requested by local officials or local
residents, but was conveniently close to property he owned, caused his property
to mushroom in value. He was not alone.
Those excesses did lead to significant reforms, including more transparency
and some significant tightening of the number and amount of earmarks. But
obviously, they have not disappeared, and the problem has vaulted back into the
public eye both with the scandals involving PMA Group, which lobbied Members for
earmarks for its clients, and with the 8,570 earmarks amounting to $7.7 billion
in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill.
Many lawmakers, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R),
both longtime earmark scourges who have resolutely resisted the wrath and
retribution of their colleagues, exploded at this revelation; the Republicans,
especially, have aimed barbs at President Barack Obama for not vetoing the bill.
Let us grant that Congressional leaders were obtuse and tunnel-visioned when
they forged ahead with those earmarks. Nonetheless, if I were advising Obama, I
would tell him to sign the bill. A veto would enrage your allies (and privately,
some of your adversaries) in Congress as a cheap shot. You have higher
priorities at the moment than picking a fight with your own leaders in Congress
over a few billion dollars, especially when most Members of both parties have
eagerly offered their own earmarks. That would not pass any cost/benefit
analysis. The real issue is what a president and Congress can do to make a
fundamental long-term difference in the earmark process.
What does it mean to make the earmark process work? First is to recognize
that somebody in the federal government will be making allocation decisions,
which is what earmarking happens to be. To put it in simplistic terms: Should
those decisions be made by faceless bureaucrats who may have no connection to
local areas, and no understanding of local priorities, or by Members of
Congress, whose life blood is to be connected to their districts? But if many of
the decisions are made by Congresspeople, how can we avoid the excesses, either
wasteful spending, bribery or other quids pro quo, including campaign
contributions, favors done for family or staff or lobbyists?
We need transparency, more than we have achieved through the reforms of the
past couple of years. Real transparency means all earmarks available on the Web
for enough time, meaning weeks, that people around the country can examine the
list and probe for anything out of line or suspicious. We need not only identify
where the earmark request came from, but make sure that if it requires contracts
with private companies that the process of implementation is fair and above
board–get rid of no-bid contracts, earmarks structured cleverly so that only
one favored company can compete and benefit.
We also need better ways to make sure that earmarks reflect genuine
priorities for the country and for local areas. And we need further safeguards
to make sure that corruption, via earmarks that enrich directly or indirectly
Members or others in their constellation, and via a cozy relationship between
lobbyists who earn big fees for getting earmarks into bills and who provide
campaign sustenance for the lawmakers who do what they want, doesn’t routinely
I will judge President Obama not on whether he postures by vetoing a spending
bill, but by whether he crafts and pushes this next generation of reforms.
But I will also judge Congress by whether the Members do more to make sure
that the earmark decisions in fact reflect genuine local priorities and a
careful eye on the use of taxpayer dollars, and build more safeguards to protect
against both corruption and the appearance of corruption. Here is the best next
step to achieve that goal: local and state advisory boards or panels on
The model here is what many Senators have done to create a balance and reduce
bias in the selection of federal district judges and other top judicial and law
enforcement posts. For example, in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel
Martinez (R) have created a Judicial Nominating Commission to select finalists
for judges, U.S. attorneys and federal marshals, with 56 members divided into
three geographical boards. The focus, of course, is on quality, and the two have
in large measure taken partisanship out of the equation for jobs where it should
not be a major factor.
Why not apply this broad principle to earmarks? I would like to see a series
of such boards, consisting of local officials, representatives from business,
labor and academia, charged with producing a yearly evaluation of the economic
and social needs of the Congressional district or state, in order of priority.
There could be a state-level board, created by both Senators regardless of
party, along with a series of Congressional district panels. Their project and
grant lists would be made public. Earmarks introduced by the relevant lawmakers
could be judged on the basis of the priority list.
If a Member pushed an earmark not on the list, or low on the list, he or she
would have some explaining to do. If a lobbyist pushed a Member to introduce an
earmark for a client, the lawmaker would run the request by the priority board
members to see if it fit their criteria; if so, it would give some substantial
rationale and backing to the request, taking it out of the realm of suspicion as
a quid pro quo.
Of course, this would not ensure the elimination of waste. Many things that
local areas want are wasteful. We are spending billions on weapons systems that
are outdated or unneeded because local communities want to keep the jobs they
represent. That is why we also need the other rules, like more transparency,
more time to evaluate line items, and more control over contracting, along with
a budget process that actually sets national priorities and puts some
constraints on local wish lists. If you add these reforms to a new set of
advisory panels, we can come much closer to a reasonable balance.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.
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