Fresh from his successful stewardship through the House of a war-funding bill that included $21 billion in pork add-ons, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) told the South Carolina General Assembly last Tuesday that lawmakers’ practice of earmarking federal dollars for pet projects was one of the “best way[s]” to spend taxpayers’ money:
[Earmarking] has come under fire lately as being a device for pork-barrel spending and budget increases. That’s a total misrepresentation, and let me tell you why. Two weeks ago the House adopted a budget Resolution which sets federal spending limits for Fiscal Year 2008. Even if Members of Congress reserve a percentage of those allocations for their constituents’ priorities funding cannot exceed those limits.
Because members of Congress are responsible for both the budget resolution and the earmarking process, it stands to reason that they craft the former with the latter in mind. Clyburn engages in slippery sophistry to hide earmarking’s true impact on the budget, which Congress inflates to make room for the earmarks they plan to include later.
Earmarks are not add-ons to the budget, and they are not by definition wasteful spending projects. Every one I have ever secured was requested by a constituent.
Not surprisingly, Clyburn failed to mention that some of those constituents are members of his own family. Last summer the Myrtle Beach Sun-News reported that Clyburn earmarked $145,500 for a new building for the Five Rivers Community Development Corp., which then paid Clyburn’s nephew’s architecture firm $69,653 for the initial design work.
I share these and other constituencies with many of you. If done through an open and transparent budgetary process, I believe earmarking is a good way for us as elected representatives to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of our constituents.
Isn’t the reason earmarking has “come under fire lately” the fact that it’s not done through an open and transparent process? The House has amended its rules to require the disclosure of earmark sponsors, but the Senate has not. In addition, members of the conference committees convened to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation can still drop earmarks into bills with no disclosure at all.
Eliminating earmarks will do nothing to stop those intent on illegally manipulating the process.
Clyburn’s right. Earmark reform would not, for instance, affect the ability of bad actors to influence lawmakers by paying for their travel expenses, like admitted felon Jack Abramoff did for Clyburn on a 1997 trip to the Northern Mariana Islands. But that doesn’t change the fact that earmarks were integral to Abramoff’s corruption, so much so that Abramoff dubbed the House Appropriations committee a “favor factory” after its members’ ability to earmark funds for his clients.
It would, however, shift the entire process of determining funding priorities from us and our constituents to faceless agency bureaucrats, highly-paid grants writers and well-connected lobbyists.
This is pure baloney. Who obtains more earmarks than well-connected lobbyists? A Porkbusters.org analysis of newly released Office of Management and Budget earmark data showed that the top nongovernmental recipients of earmarked funds are all major government contractors with well-established lobbying offices inside the Beltway.
Clyburn, of course, is no more a stranger to well-connected lobbyists than he is to family-member constituents. Indeed, it appears that on at least one occasion he managed to cover both groups with a single earmark. Last summer lobbyist William Clyburn Jr. told USA Today that he obtained a $2.5 million earmark for an airport in Augusta, Georgia from his cousin, Jim Clyburn, who then served on the House Appropriations Committee. Lawmaker Clyburn’s office “disputed that characterization,” according to USA Today, after which lobbyist Clyburn changed his story.
And the shot at “highly-paid grants writers” makes no sense. Applying for grants is a competitive process that requires eligible applicants to justify their need for taxpayer dollars. When earmarks replace grants, taxpayer money gets wasted on expensive boondoggles that nobody really needs, such as the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska, or the less-infamous, if no less wasteful, “Clyburn Connector,” a proposed $150 million bridge between two tiny communities in South Carolina for which Clyburn continues to push despite opposition from environmentalists and taxpayer groups and apathy from the state’s transportation department.
Earmarking is the best way to ensure federal dollars are effectively spent on the priorities outlined by local communities, rather than out-of-state bureaucrats.
It is not Congress’s constitutional role to be endlessly appropriating federal tax dollars for teapot museums and waterfree urinal research. Earmarks grow the federal budget, promote a culture of spending on Capitol Hill and present lobbyists and lawmakers with innumerable opportunities for corrupt favor-trading. Clyburn and other porkers have been offering a spirited, if somewhat desperate, defense of the practice lately. Good. That means reformers are making progress.
Got any tips about governmental waste, fraud and abuse? E-mail wastelandNRO@gmail.com.