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A clampdown on spending | Renee Loth

Much ado about earmarks

By Renee Loth
November 20, 2010

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THE CURTAIN came up this week on the lame duck session of Congress, and members put on a big show of ending earmarks, those special appropriations for pet projects that have become symbolic of everything that is bloated about the federal government. But all the congressional razzmatazz was just a distraction from the real budget problems facing the nation — and a bit of sleight-of-hand to hide the new Republican majority’s retrograde agenda on reform.

In the spotlight for this magic show was the presumptive House speaker, John Boehner, who promises to end Washington’s evil ways. “An earmark moratorium shows that elected officials are serious about restoring trust between the American people and those who are elected to represent them,’’ he said. As with a rabbit and a hat, Boehner presented his moratorium as key to making the deficit disappear. But all the earmarks for all 50 states combined represent less than one percent of the budget over which Congress has control.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Republicans still in the minority agreed to a temporary, non-binding moratorium on earmarks in an internal caucus vote. Even President Obama, delighted to have found a bipartisan cause, however symbolic, has jumped aboard, calling for strict limits on earmarks, if not an outright ban.

Earmarks have always been easy targets. Muckrakers don’t have to look hard to find petty pork projects to pillory and parody. Last year, for example, there was $50,000 for the National Mule and Packers Museum in California; $824,000 for research into alternative salmon products in Washington state; and $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum in North Carolina. And of course, there was that $223 million Alaskan bridge to nowhere — or, more accurately, to Gravina Island, population 50.

But one man’s pork is another man’s economic development project. Even Tea Party acolyte Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is already trying to redefine earmarks so they won’t put a notch in her particular slab of bacon. “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district in my mind does not equate to an earmark,’’ she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Banning congressional earmarks won’t stop the roughly $16 billion a year spent on special projects; it will only drive it underground — or, more precisely, into the executive branch. Without members of Congress to attach their spending priorities to appropriations bills, project advocates would instead lobby federal agencies for the money, either in the president’s budget or as grants. This would actually be less transparent than the current procedure for earmarks, which are posted, albeit in piecemeal fashion, on the Internet. And most earmarks just dole out funds that have already been appropriated.

Details, details. Americans despise earmarks, and the newly-empowered Republicans hope to burnish their ethical bona fides by dumping them. The party has proposed some other reforms to House business, such as posting non-emergency legislation online 72 hours before a vote, and allowing video cameras into the powerful rules committee. But these small good government steps obscure the plans that Boehner and his team have to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics — or starve it of funding so that it cannot function.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi established the office in 2008 as the first independent, non-partisan review of alleged ethical violations by House members. This was the office that first brought to light the charges against Representative Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat, who was convicted on 11 counts of ethical violations this week.

But Boehner and most of the Republican leadership voted against creating the office, and the current director announced his resignation in anticipation of its de-funding. The irony is that the office also revealed several instances of earmark abuses, including a pay-to-play system of members inserting earmarks after having received campaign contributions from interested parties, especially for defense projects.

All this attention to earmarks comes as the chairmen of a special presidential commission on deficit reduction are proposing real spending cuts, including in Social Security, Medicare, and popular tax breaks such as the mortgage deduction. The commission’s punch list has many useful suggestions, but taken as a whole, it represents a massive redistribution of resources up the income scale, since it puts an absolute cap on tax revenues while it squeezes more than $2 trillion out of government spending over 10 years.

Earmarks? A sideshow.

Renee Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.