Editorial: Earmark Action

Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:33pm

Even though they represent just a small fraction of federal spending, earmarks have accounted for an outsized proportion of Congressional embarrassment over recent years, so we are pleased to see House Democrats and Republicans moving to limit them.

But until the Senate goes along, or until President Barack Obama determines to veto earmarks when they come his way, the spectacle of special interest spending won’t stop — nor, with it, the public suspicion that many earmarked projects are bought with campaign contributions.

After House Democrats announced that they would ban all earmarks directed toward for-profit companies, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a self-congratulatory statement that “over the past three years, we fought to replace a culture of corruption with a new direction of transparency and accountability, including earmark reforms in the last Congress.”

She added that the new ban would “ensure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars by the federal government across all agencies.”

It’s true, there has been improvement in transparency. Members are now required to disclose each project they are requesting, along with its beneficiary. The value of earmarks has fallen from $29 billion in fiscal 2006 to $19.6 billion in 2009 and an expected $14 billion to $16 billion for 2010, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Still, the “culture of corruption” has not been expunged. As Roll Call reported last week, the House ethics committee exonerated some of Congress’ most prolific earmarkers without — so far as anyone can tell — conducting a serious investigation of their possible connection to campaign contributions.

House Democrats have now announced there will be no more appropriated earmarks to for-profit entities and have directed federal inspectors general to audit 5 percent of all earmarks directed to nonprofit entities to ensure they are not providing cover for for-profit enterprises.

Watchdog groups have given qualified praise to those moves. They’ve given even more plaudits to House Republicans, who imposed a unilateral one-year moratorium on all of their earmark requests, including those to nonprofits, plus special interest tax and tariff breaks secured through the Ways and Means Committee.

However, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has ruled out any similar limits on his side of the Capitol, and it remains to be seen whether Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) move to ban earmarks will ever come to a vote.

As we’ve often said before, a Member of Congress is elected to look after the welfare of his or her district or state as well as that of the nation — and part of that involves sponsoring economic development projects.

But those actions should take place through regular order — approval in a federal agency competitive procedure or, if that fails, authorization and appropriation by Congress.

In the absence of a Senate ban, it’s up to Obama — a declared foe of earmarks — to use his veto to stop special interest spending. He has a mixed record. He used persuasion to keep earmarks out of last year’s stimulus bill, but he has yet to veto anything. This year, the Senate will give him opportunities to show he’s serious.