By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A moratorium on earmarks established by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders may drive billions of dollars in spending for special projects through other channels that are less transparent, political experts said Monday.
Instead of submitting earmarks, members of Congress may obtain federal funding for projects in their districts by phone calls, letters or other legislative means, said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government transparency.
“How much spending will we see by another name?” he asked.
A phone call from a lawmaker to a federal agency official, whose budget that lawmaker controls, would carry great weight and be hard to track, Wonderlich said.
“In a sense,” he said, earmarks are “more accountable.”
Congressional leaders adopted the earmark moratorium largely as a concession to tea party lawmakers who “declared war on earmarks,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
“The question is now: Will it go underground?” he said. “All members have projects they deem worthy in their district.”
For example, more earmarks — line-item appropriations to specific projects approved without public hearing or review — could become anonymous, McCuan said.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan group that has tracked earmark spending since 1991, found 9,048 requested projects worth $10 billion in the 2010 budget, along with 81 anonymous projects worth $6.5 billion.
Tom Schatz, the organization’s president, hailed Obama’s pledge to veto any bill containing earmarks, but added that his group “will also be monitoring how members of Congress may attempt to circumvent the moratorium.”
There were about $8 billion in earmark requests in a 2011 omnibus spending bill that failed to get through Congress last year, The New York Times reported.
North Coast Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, requested more than $864 million in earmarks for 220 projects in their districts last year.
Thompson said there will likely be no earmarks this year.
“There’s nothing to submit,” he said. “There’s no process.”
Thompson has, as before, asked cities and counties within his district for lists of funding priorities.
“It’s always good to have something in your back pocket,” Thompson said.
But he has told local officials the prospects for earmark funding are “slim to none.”
Woolsey was returning to Washington on Monday and not available for comment.
Steve Ellis, vice president of the anti-waste group, said it objects to earmarks because they are based on “political muscle” rather than project merit.
The $16 billion worth of earmarks amounted to less than 1 percent of the FY 2010 budget, a “relative drop in the bucket,” he said.
Eliminating earmarks won’t make much of a dent in the federal deficit, he said, “but at this point Congress needs to be looking for spare change in the seat cushions.”
Wonderlich said his group has pushed for a more transparent earmark process. A bill that would have required a single database listing all earmarks failed last year, he said.
He wouldn’t be surprised to see earmarks return.
“It’s part of how Congress operates,” Wonderlich said.