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What’s an earmark anyway?

December 29, 2010

Our newest U.S. Senator attracted the attention of the New York Times with anti-spending stances that helped get him elected and helped provide the Senate ammuntion to shoot down the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill at the tail end of the Lame Duck. 

It was one of those bills that no one had any time to read.   Loaded down with thousands of earmarks totalling several billion dollars,  the omnibus crashed.   Sen. Kirk was correct to call the massive spending bill’s defeat a victory. 

Nevertheless, the NYT reports that Sen. Mark Kirk, like many other members of Congress, has in the past used the “lettermark,” a earmark variation that involves  following up the passage of a spending bill with a letter to a federal agency urging that a portion of the appropriated funds be spent for a specific purpose or project in the member’s congressional district.

Citizens Against Government Waste provided the Times with a letter Sen. Kirk sent to the Department of Education requesting more than a million in federal stimulus dollars for a suburban Chicago school disrict.

In response to questions about the letter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kirk defended the practice of reaching out to federal agencies to secure financing for constituents.  “Senator Kirk became the first member of the Appropriations Committee to stop requesting earmarks and voted against the stimulus bill,” the spokeswoman, Susan Kuczka, said in a prepared statement. “He has and will continue to be an advocate for his Illinois constituents before administration agencies but will not request Congressional earmarks to be included in House or Senate legislation.”

Congressman Kirk’s letter worked, and motivated members of Congress evidently use another earmark variation to claim their district’s fair share of federal dollars.

In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have ordered agencies to ignore the calls of elected officials, but an agency official said it’s difficult to say “no” to the people who approve the agency’s budget.   Ya think?

Okay, we get it.   There are ways around a congressional earmark ban.   And effective elected officials are good at it.   Maybe that’s a good thing.   After all,  I can sure come up with a few projects I would love to see receive earmarks like 1,200-foot locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.    I am never particularly thrilled to hear Congress and commentators alike call out important agricultural research earmarks, which are too often unjustly ridiculed in appropriations debates but are the bread and butter of land grants and are good for our industry. 

At the Illinois Farm Bureau annual meeting, American Farm Bureau chief economist Bob Young told us that banning earmarks would only address about $53 of the roughly $4,300 in U.S. debt for every man, woman, and child living the United States.  

If you are going to cut the federal budget, a ban on member projects like the Bridge to Nowhere can be popular and clearly represents a good start,  but when it comes to actually getting a handle on federal spending, focusing too much on earmarks might prove to be an unproductive preoccupation.

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