Earmarks in eye of beholder

There are few absolute rules in Washington, but here's one of them: When everybody's saying the same thing, they're bound to be wrong. And that's the case today with earmarks. There are 8,750 of them, totaling $7.7 billion, in the $410 billion Om...

There are few absolute rules in Washington, but here's one of them: When everybody's saying the same thing, they're bound to be wrong.

And that's the case today with earmarks. There are 8,750 of them, totaling $7.7 billion, in the $410 billion Omnibus Spending Bill just passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. If you believe either John McCain or Barack Obama, every one of those earmarks is evil, lurking somewhere in the company of axe murderers, child molesters and poison ivy.

Nonsense! Would McCain and Obama please stop treating us like children? Yet even a child could understand that not all earmarks are evil. I defy anyone, for example, to eliminate the $150,000 sponsored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins in the newly-signed Omnibus Spending Bill for "lobster research." Sure, we could all live without occasionally feasting on Maine lobster. But who would want to?

Don't get me wrong. Have there been widespread abuses with earmarks? Absolutely. Earmarks, or money inserted into spending bills by members of Congress for pet projects in their own states or districts, are often used to waste tax dollars on frivolous items that would never be approved were they debated in the light of day and voted on, up or down. Surely most senators would find it hard to justify Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye's $238,000 appropriation for the "Polynesian Voyaging Society of Honolulu" -- an ancient-style canoe sailing club -- as worthy of your tax dollars and mine.

At the same time, you must admit, earmarks, like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder. Or, sometimes, in the noses of neighbors. Take Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's controversial $1.7 million for "Swine Odor and Manure Management Research." As a resident of Washington, D.C., I don't have any problem with pig manure (bull manure's another issue!). But if I lived downwind from a hog farm in Iowa, I'd consider that $1.7 million money well spent.


What's especially obnoxious about the debate over earmarks today is the sanctimonious stand of Republican lawmakers. Suddenly they've gotten religion when it comes to fiscal responsibility. One by one, 17 different Republicans took to the Senate floor to blame Democrats for earmarks and denounce the spending bill as a "honey pot" and "orgy of spending." What hypocrites! Every one of them had loaded up the legislation with earmarks of his or her own.

The fact is, Democrats agreed in January to limit earmark spending to 50 percent of 2006 levels. There are fewer earmarks in this year's spending bill than in the last bill passed by a Republican-controlled Congress: 8,750 compared to over 11,000. And, for the first time, under Democrats, transparency reigns. Earmarks must be posted on committee Web sites. Every voter can find out who put in how much in the spending bill and for what purpose. That's real change.

And, besides, if Republicans were really so holier than thou about earmarks, why did they sponsor so many earmarks themselves? Forty percent of all earmarks in this year's spending bill were Republican-sponsored. While Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia tops the list, six out of 10 big spenders are Senate Republicans, led by Thad Cochran of Mississippi, with 65 earmarks, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, with 64, including $800,000 for an oyster rehabilitation grant to the University of South Alabama.

On the same day President Obama reluctantly signed the Omnibus Spending Bill, House Democrats adopted new measures to reform the earmark process even further. From now on, earmarks will be subject to a 20-day review by the relevant executive-branch agency, which can give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Earmarks will be limited to no more than 1 percent of the discretionary budget. And any earmark for a private, for-profit company will be subject to competitive bidding.

Congressional scholar Norm Epstein of the American Enterprise Institute praised the new rules as "a solid, practical and comprehensive set of new steps." And maybe, someday, Congress will even approve a line-item veto, enabling a president to go through the budget line by line and red-pencil expenditures he or she finds unnecessary or frivolous. Meantime, it makes more sense to continue to reform the earmark process, rather than pretend we will, or should, eliminate earmarks altogether.

President Obama should say about earmarks what President Clinton, after a similar flap, once said about affirmative action: It's time to mend it, not end it.

What To Read Next
Get Local