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This rant was inspired by an excellent procedural question posted over at Congress Matters.

Many thanks to David Waldman aka Kagro X for putting this on the front page at Congress Matters. Please take a few minutes to check it out. I'm reposting as much to promote Congress Matters as to get some more comments here.  

Now that President Obama has submitted his budget to Congress, the sausage factory that is the budget process will kick into high gear here in the District. With that will come the inevitable howling and gnashing of teeth about those damnable "earmarks."

If you listen to the "loyal opposition" too long, you might even agree that earmarks are inherently evil. The problem is that not many people actually understand know what an earmark really is.

The issue is not how much money goes into earmarks. The issue is how they are awarded.

Follow me below the fold for enlightenment.

Let's start with the official definition of an earmark from the Office of Management and Budget:

Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds. Congress includes earmarks in appropriation bills - the annual spending bills that Congress enacts to allocate discretionary spending - and also in authorization bills.

The OMB site also lets you search for earmarks.

Update from the comments at Congress Matters: Please see this comment from Papabile discussing the different definitions of an earmark that are used by CBO and the various Congressional committees.

So what does that mean? The language is quite harsh and highlights an Executive-Legislative branch conflict. Traditionally, Congress appropriates money and the bureaucracy (Executive Branch) spends money.

For all of the spin, it is important to note that "earmarks" only account for less than one percent of the federal budget.

Here it is in graphic form:

Earmarks in the Federal Budget Pictures, Images and Photos

Stunning.

So what exactly are earmarks? An earmark is a provision in one of the 12 appropriations bills that specifically directs spending to a given project. From OMB:

In fiscal year 2008, there were 11,524 earmarks totaling $16,501,833,000 for appropriations accounts.

Here's another good background from Slate's Explainer.

As we learned earlier, earmarks "circumvent(s) the merit-based or competitive allocation process." Executive Branch agencies typically dole out grant money to projects that meet specific criteria dictated by the given agency. The grant process is long and tedious and involves enough paperwork to destroy several acres of Amazon rain forest (small exaggeration).  

So you have invested the time and effort to submit a grant application to some anonymous bureaucrat in Washington (or state capitol for state agency grants) and hope that the grant is approved. If you get the money, great. If not, you will be submitting that application next year or you will give up. Don't forget that you are competing against a whole slew of other applications from other communities.

Caveat: Even if a grant is approved, federal funds usually involve a local match. That means your local government will probably be raising taxes to cover the local match.

But there is another (and more efficient) way to get money for your "pet project." Convince your member of Congress that this project is absolutely necessary to your state/city/community/watershed/hamlet. Since every member of Congress has an interest in "bringing home the bacon" to secure votes, every member tends to support every other member's earmarks. It's like a fast track for local projects and the analogy of pigs feeding at a trough is not all that off target.

In practical terms, consider a hypothetical situation. Your community needs money to repair a bridge that is about to fall down. You could put in an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation and hope that it gets funded through a grant. The other option is to invite your Senator or Representative to inspect the bridge and ask for an earmark. It might be a good idea to have the member drive across the bridge and fear for his/her life during the trip.

In either scenario, the federal money is going to be spent. The federal budget does not care if the money is spent in your town or Wasilla, Alaska. The real difference is who decides how the money will be spent. Is is your member of congress or someone else's member.

Remember this adage:

Sure he's an asshole. But he's our asshole.

It should go without saying that Members of Congress with seniority get more earmarks than freshmen. This is why Robert Byrd, who has been in the Senate since the invention of the telegraph, gets more money for West Virgina than the nOObies.

So the real issue with earmarks is not the amount of money appropriate, as Grandpa McSame tried to argue. Instead, it is a question of equity. Should states with long serving Senators be more entitled to federal funds than states with Freshmen representation?

Your thoughts...

Originally posted to Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 05:19 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    Tips will be donated to the Flight 93 Memorial:

    Link

    King Laughlin of the National Park Foundation said more than one-third of the $30 million in private donations has been raised.

    and...

    In addition to private donations, the $58 million memorial is expected to be built with funding from public sources -- principally the federal and state governments.

    I think I once mentioned that I don't like rats at the best of times.

    by Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 05:19:24 PM PST

    •  Thanks for writing this (3+ / 0-)

      People are pretty ignorant about the process that leads to the eventual earmark.  They are even more in the dark about the huge amount of work that goes into securing the funds (application and reporting) once an appropriation is designated.

      Most earmarks are really noble and I would argue an aspect of the best of representative government.  There is a difference between earmarks in the budgte -- which take ayear's worth of work to develop -- and the Republican middle-of-the-night deal.  The Democrats since 2006 have really worked to make the former process pretty transparent.  These appropriations really help citizens in districts everywhere in the country.

      In fact, if it were not for earmarks, Bush would have done a lot more damage to dem/progressive districts and the poor and working people in them than he did.  Rove's goal was to completely politicize government for the beneit of Republicans.  Earmarks held that back a bit and in the process helped millions of Americans.

      Yes, I have received earmark funds to help kids in trouble.  It was in no way a pure give away and I spend huge amounts of time applying for funds and then reporting about and justifying our program.

      So, in the words of Chuck D and Flavor Fave:

      "Don't Believe the Hype!"

      Save your tears for the living

      by immanentize on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 06:20:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Very cool (0+ / 0-)

        It's always good to hear about government money directly helping people. And thanks for all of your work. This diary really glossed over the hours of work that go into obtaining and justifying grants and earmarks.

        I think I once mentioned that I don't like rats at the best of times.

        by Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 06:26:34 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  right on (3+ / 0-)

    the problem is it is not considered by the legislators either.

    I have always thought that if Congress had discretionary spending dollars ofr pet projects that they should have a speical discretionary spending bill thaat is fully considered by the legislature...

    that s always where the hitch lies, with an earmark you a chairman to put it in it is in, no real procedural review at any other level...

    •  And all too often (3+ / 0-)

      the earmarks are slipped in during conference committee on omnibus bills. That means there is little to no opportunity for public inspection/comment.

      I think I once mentioned that I don't like rats at the best of times.

      by Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 05:31:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Why not make it much simpler... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      allenjo

      Give each Senator and Representative a set amount of earmark money that they can allocate in any way they want as long as the recipient or beneficiary is identified by name and all contributions related to that recipient or beneficiary are disclosed together with the earmark.

      Totally ban all other earmarks and give all US citizens standing to sue to prevent expenditure of any other earmarked funds.

  •  Earmarks... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shirl In Idaho, Casual Wednesday

    ...are not in and of themselves bad things.  I think it is a good thing that a federal grant is going to improve the educational experience of minority students in the sciences at the college where I teach.

    •  And that was never my intention (0+ / 0-)

      I could list thousands of worthy projects funded through both earmarks and federal grants. When people go off about the "Cowgirl Museum" in Texas, remember that this was an important project in the community. Additionally, had it not been for a member of Congress specifically earmarking that money, the museum would probably have received the money from another federal government source.

      And it's great that your students are benefiting from federal money. Is it earmarked or grant-funded (not that it matters; the school got it)?

      I think I once mentioned that I don't like rats at the best of times.

      by Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 06:11:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Earmarks are intrinsically (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      EmmaKY

      and objectively inefficient. They are allocated not based on general welfare, but based on who the congressperson is.

      As far as your education example. If the federal government would like to improve the educational experience of minority students in the sciences at universities, and that can be argued for from a general welfare perspective, then it can determine where that money goes based on number of students it will help, how much students will be helped, and maybe the amount the state can put into it as well. If your college is determined to be high on that list, then it would get funding

      All too often we think earmarks are not bad because they "do right things." Doing right things is not the same as doing things right. Instead of just focusing on doing right things, let's focus on doing right things right

  •  Thanks very much for this! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bushondrugs, Casual Wednesday

    I often wondered what a reasonable definition of "earmark" would look like.

    So, it's really about transparency and about not going around the system (i.e., no-bid contracts and the like).

    Sounds good to me.

    "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

    by rfall on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 06:39:28 PM PST

    •  Sure thing (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bushondrugs

      We discussed this in class quite extensively last year. I really should have posted something during the campaign. It's still relevant, though because the Repubs are going to be falling all over themselves denouncing earmarks and then taking a bunch of them anyway.

      I think I once mentioned that I don't like rats at the best of times.

      by Casual Wednesday on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 06:50:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Absolutely not (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    EmmaKY

    Should states with long serving Senators be more entitled to federal funds than states with Freshmen representation?

    Earmarks should be awarded on a merit-based process. If your district has a structurally deficient bridge that needs repairing, funding for it should be determined based on how damaged it currently is, how many cars drive on it regularly, and how much the local area or state is able to chip in. You should not need to have a senior congressperson to get funding for it. When awarded based on seniority, we intrinsically neglect projects that would have been funded that are more needing and deserving.

    Nowhere does their oath mention their state or district. It only mentions upholding the Constitution of the United States, protecting and defending it against all enemies. Nowhere does the Constitution allow them to collect earmarks. The Taxing and Spending Clause, which is Congress's power to

    "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States"

    gives Congress the power to spend based on the national or general welfare, as opposed to local welfare. The SCOTUS ruled this in Butler v. United States (1936). Unfortunately, they ruled a year later in Helvering v. Davis that deference belongs to Congress on what constitutes national welfare. Which is absurd; we don't let government determine what search and seizure is "reasonable."

  •  Aside from the Constitutional arguments (0+ / 0-)

    But aside from the Constitution argument, earmarks have no net gain (I'm not talking about allocations that are competitively bid based on merit, such as allocating homeland security grants based on risk. Those aren't earmarks. They are spent from a national viewpoint). The federal government cannot give one dollar to a district unless it has first taken a dollar away from another district (or other districts). If they take a dollar from Marin county and spend it in East LA, yes, East LA now has an extra dollar on a project that supposedly will enhance their quality of life. But then we have to remember the other half: Marin county now has one less dollar to spend on a project that will enhance its quality of life. Mathematically it amounts to zero, but it actually amounts to less than zero. Instead of money being spent at the local or state level where people making the decision over the project live in the district or state and would have to answer to people who fund and use it, the expenditure is being determined by 535 people in Washington, and they hardly know what's best for the district or state compared to local and state officials. No good comes from sacrificing one or more districts or states to another.

    Representation does not mean a contest to see which district will benefit the most from other districts' expense. Representation is about electing someone to represent your views on national matters, such as war, regulations, and everything else in Article I Section 8. They are meant to represent you within their Constitutional role.

  •  I agreed with McCain on Pork - "You Will Know (0+ / 0-)

    Their Names" was it.

    The law forbids rich and poor alike to steal food and sleep under bridges.

    by allenjo on Sun Mar 01, 2009 at 04:06:31 PM PST

  •  Wasn't it Sen. Proxmire (0+ / 0-)

    that used to expose the totally ridiculous pork spending? We need someone like him again, so we do not have more bridges to nowhere.

    The law forbids rich and poor alike to steal food and sleep under bridges.

    by allenjo on Sun Mar 01, 2009 at 04:16:00 PM PST

    •  Sen. Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards (0+ / 0-)

      Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Awards, which identified wasteful government spending between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were "awarded" to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel ("The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying "the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the 'length of the buttocks.

      The law forbids rich and poor alike to steal food and sleep under bridges.

      by allenjo on Sun Mar 01, 2009 at 04:36:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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