by Max Brantley
Washington reporter Paul Barton has surveyed the Arkansas congressional delegation about attitudes toward earmarks, specific appropriations often derided as wasteful pork but also seen as a measure of a congressman's ability to deliver for constituents.
Has the era of Obama brought a change in their popularity?
Doesn't sound like it.
By Paul Barton
WASHINGTON – Despite the ongoing controversy over “earmarks,” members of the Arkansas congressional delegation continue to believe its their duty is to seek all they can, questions placed to their offices indicate.
The Arkansas Times asked each of the six offices Wednesday if they were pursuing earmarks in the wrap-up fiscal year 2009 appropriations bill. The legislation easily cleared the House Wednesday 245-178, largely along party lines. The Senate is expected to consider it shortly.
The bill was regarded as littered with earmarks, generally funding for special projects for a state or congressional district that are not vetted by committees and are included as favors from lawmaker to another.
Compared to the total federal budget, earmarks, such as for a museum there or a light- rail project here, continue to be relatively nickel-and-dime items. But the increasing use of them has made become a flashpoint in the debate controlling spending and the character of Congress. Witness Republican Sen. John McCain’s railing during last year’s presidential race.
Watchdog groups continued to watch with dismay.
“While the Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate money, it was not the Founding Father’s intent that it be divided up according to the whim of individual members,” Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said in an e-mail.
Here are some of the philosophies toward earmarks relayed by Arkanas members this week to the Arkansas Times :
- Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln: “At a time when so many of our communities are struggling, I'm going to use every tool at my disposal to ensure that Arkansas receives as much funding for law enforcement, education initiatives, and infrastructure improvements as possible.”
- Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Pryor is a new member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a coveted position for those seeking home-state spending. Said Pryor: “This package contains dozens of important projects to drive economic development in Arkansas, including much-needed funding to supplement agriculture, transportation, law enforcement, health care and public works projects. As a new member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will continue to allocate dollars where they can be most effective. One of my goals is to help get individual spending bills completed in a fair, responsible and efficient manner in order to avoid massive omnibus bills.”
- Democratic Rep. Mike Ross: “For far too long our domestic priorities have been ignored and I think it is time we start investing in America again. I will never shy from working to secure federal investments for our state’s many infrastructure, education, agriculture and local law enforcement needs. Investments in these critical areas create and save jobs and put many of our local communities on a path to sustained economic growth.”
- Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder: “The funded 2d District projects in this bill are excellent investments in Arkansas’s future. All of them were requested by entities of either state or local government or by the President.” Snyder’s office clarified that he meant former President George W. Bush, not Obama, who is just releasing his budget proposals today.
The press office of Rep. Marion Berry, also a Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. Berry is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. John Boozman, the delegation’s only Republican, said he would have no comment.
Of those who did respond, Snyder, who represents Central Arkansas, was the only one to provide examples and cost figures of some of the items he sought. His list included dozens of projects, most under $5 million, and he credited Lincoln, Pryor, Ross and Berry as helping him with many of them.
Some of Snyder’s items included:
- $3.9 million for a Delta Nutrition Initiative.
- $1.1 million for the Fourche Bayou Basin
- $1.89 from the Department of Energy for “Nanostructured Solar Cells for Increased Efficiency and Lower Cost.”
- “City of Little Rock, Arkansas, to upgrade an 800 MHz communications
network and complete its conversion to a digital system … $500,000.”
- University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute Arkansas Methamphetamine Education and Training Project- Little Rock, $500,000.
- Arkansas Seismological Survey, $500,000, to be performed by the U.S. Geologic Survey.
The bigger-ticket items Snyder listed were things such as $27.5 million for continued work on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation Project and $7.8 million for Dardanelle Lock and Dam. These were listed as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Projects that also had Bush’s support.
Interestingly, Schatz, of Citizens Against Government Waste, says his group gives lawmakers a pass on items with administration backing and does not consider them as rising to earmark status.
But it’s the other items, ones that receive little or no examination at the committee level and are included at the last minute as a request by one member to another, that his group still decries.
To show how attitudes have changed, Schatz said the very first Congress in the 18th Century saw a proposal to aid a particular glass manufacturer turned down. It’s constitutionality was challenged by other members.
All is not lost, though. For Schatz said the total amount of earmarks are showing some signs of slowing after recent scandals and exposure of ties to prominent lobbyists. None of those cases have involved Arkansas members.
But, Schatz said, earmarks remain too much a part of the budget process, even as President Obama has called for restraint as well.
“The first federal aid-highway bill in 1916 did not contain a single earmark,” Schatz said. “Many members claim it is their ‘job’ to provide earmarks. Yet this practice did not become prevalent until the 1990s.”
He added: “It is ironic that some members of Congress claim that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to make decisions about how to spend money, yet 99.9 percent of appropriated funds are divided according to formulas that Congress enacted and instructed the executive branch to follow. They protest too loudly to protect the one-tenth of one percent of the money that is provided through earmarks. In addition, the corrupting influence of earmarks (the ‘favor factor’ as convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the process) should be a warning to members of Congress that they are not worth the effort.
“Earmarks are a form of cheating, as members move their projects to the front of the line ahead of what might be more worth candidates for federal funds. This circumvents the competitive process, which again is the norm for the vast majority of federal spending.”