Artfully Redefining Earmarks

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:36pm

President-elect Barack Obama’s no-earmark mandate for the stimulus package has leading Democrats scrambling to find subtler ways to direct funding to their districts.

They may not be called earmarks, but lawmakers are looking to write legislative formulas into the package to ensure that their districts share in the wealth and won’t simply be at the mercy of Washington’s bureaucracy or the nation’s governors.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is leading the effort, personally lobbying Obama, top Obama adviser David Axelrod and committee chairmen on the issue last week. Clyburn said numerous Members, particularly freshmen, are concerned that they could sign on to a massive package with nothing to show for their districts.

Clyburn said the package can be written in such a way that governors have relatively little control over the money, and the funds can flow directly to local communities.

“The pro or con on earmarks I think missed the point,” Clyburn said. “Members are very concerned about going out in their Congressional districts and trying to get elected. … They want to be sure their votes will respond to their constituents.”

“If you’re going to go out to take the flak to significantly expand the deficit and the debt, you’ve got to be able to say … ‘This is what happened in our community.’”

Giving money to governors to spend would simply “turn a federal earmark into a state earmark,” he said.

Clyburn faces a special problem in his state: Conservative Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has said he does not want the stimulus money. Sanford is standing firm, despite having the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation and massive budget cuts in his state.

“We just cut $1 billion out of a $7 billion budget, and to hear your governor say we don’t need it,” Clyburn said. “But he happens to be a millionaire. He may not need the help for the plantation his family owns, but the people whose grandparents and great-grandparents worked those plantations need the help.”

Clyburn said stimulus money can be directed without including a single earmark, through a host of programs such as Community Development Block Grants, setting up empowerment zones and bolstering existing programs that fund water and sewer systems, rural development and the like.

The Majority Whip said he doesn’t fault Obama for trying to eliminate earmarks from the bill. “I know the politics of all this. I just think they’re wrong about it,” he said, adding later, “I love earmarks.”

At some point, Clyburn noted, there will be a list of projects funded by the package, and Members want to have input.

“The list is going to come from somewhere,” he said.

House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) questioned whether the bill can truly be considered free of earmarks when it will be loaded up with complicated formulas directing spending.

“Calling it an earmark-free thing and then saying there are established formulas doesn’t sound very earmark-free to me,” said Lewis, who noted that the funding will lead to a list of local projects either way.

“Are those earmarks even though the president says they aren’t? What are they then?”

Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), acknowledged that Obey has been meeting with Members to hear their concerns, but she said Obey is maintaining a strict no-earmark policy that will prevent lawmakers from naming any specific project.

“It’s very important that we craft a bill that’s fair,” she said. “We already did a Wall Street bailout. We need to craft a Main Street bailout, and that means help for everyone.”

Several Democrats said they want at least 20 percent of spending to be directed to high unemployment areas.

“How do we get it to the people? That’s the issue,” said House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who said she wants to make sure some of the money is directed to economically distressed upstate New York.

“We take the heat and we appropriate the money and we want to make sure it’s done right,” she said. “It needs to go where it needs to go. Why reward people who aren’t having any trouble?”

Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) also favors targeting relief to empowerment zones with little leeway given to governors.

The lack of explicit earmarks continues to be frustrating for other Members.

“I’d like to have a little bit more control over what’s spent in my district,” said Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. “There are projects that mayors have told me are ready to go now, and that’s not going to be a part of this package. I wish it would be.”