WatchSonoma Watch

Ban on earmarks may have unintended consequences


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.

8 Responses to “Ban on earmarks may have unintended consequences”

  1. Jaak Saame says:

    @ Beef King

    “Thompson said there will likely be no earmarks this year.”

    What is your beef with this statement?

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  2. “These people” (hello, Rep Woolsey) seek their position for the ability to dispense funds in favor of their values and vision of what America should be.

    This is not the charter of the Congress of the United States.

    Every Representative should foster values and seek alliances in pursuit of the “general welfare”. No Representative should be empowered to use the public coffer to dispense largess in pursuit of personal goals. Simple principle: no bypassing the democratic legislative process.

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  3. Brian Brown says:

    and expanding on Beef King’s comments, how bad will it have to get before the general public starts to get engaged. It seems everyone is going about their lives with no interest in our future.

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  4. john bly says:

    Revolution? Maybe it is time–I hope our Federally elected officials start getting it because the State certainly does not. Appropriations should be: worthy, easy to understand, cost efficient, transparent, able to”ring the economic cash register” in a measurable and accountable manner, voted on by a majority of all elected officials in a non-partisan manner, and approved or not after having read and understood what you were voting on. Wow-just like you have to doin your own business!!

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  5. Reality Check says:

    Federal money for “internal improvements” has been appropriated since before Henry Clay and the Whig party. The idea that ending earmarks might cause it to become even less transparent betrays someone in need of a good book on American history and government.

    Once upon a time, internal improvements went through the normal appropriations process, as in public hearings and debates. The process was open and transparent.

    The idea that it must go the other way, even more hidden from public view, reveals just out of touch some members of Congress are with the original principles of American government.

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  6. Jim Judd says:

    Career politicians, global corporation lobbyists along with special interests, add in entitlements for the public and you have the dependence of a nation feeding off its future.
    Can you imagine what our local economy would be like if just 25% of our federal tax dollars stayed here at home? “Earmarks and Pork” are nothing more than another form of wealth redistribution on the backs of the middle class funded by our children to pay our debt.

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  7. Josh Stevens says:

    We have no money.

    The value of our currency is plummeting.

    How much more money do we have to borrow from China to satisfy our dead-beats and moochers?

    The Government is not your mommy.

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  8. Beef King says:

    …”It’s always good to have something in your back pocket,” Congressman Thompson said.

    It’s even better to control your spending and be honest with your constituents where their money is going.

    When will local voters actually care enough to know who they are electing? Will they ever??

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