Thursday, March 11, 2010

Half A Loaf

One of my pet peeves with Congress is the use of "earmarks", a process by which a pet project is inserted as an amendment to a bill, usually at the last possible moment before a floor vote, thereby by-passing the usual budgetary procedure. That's how Alaska got that "bridge to nowhere" some years back. The earmark usually benefits some company that made a rather sizable campaign donation to the congress critter offering the amendment. Members of Congress usually defend their earmarks as being a way to bring jobs to their constituents, that's it's within that sanctified practice known as bringing home the pork. I still object to it as a form of no-bid contract.

Apparently House Democrats, feeling the heat of ethics investigations into several members of the caucus, agree that earmarks are trouble, especially during a period of budget deficits.

From the NY Times:

Both parties are seeking to claim the ethical high ground on the issue by racing to rein in a budgeting practice that has become rife with political influence peddling. So far, though, the Senate is not joining in. House Democrats had tried to reach an agreement with their counterparts to ban for-profit earmarks, but the senators balked, Congressional officials said.

Had the ban on for-profit earmarks been in place last year, it would have meant the elimination of about 1,000 awards worth a total of about $1.7 billion, leaders of the House Appropriations Committee said in announcing that, as a matter of policy, they will no longer approve requests for awards to for-profit groups. Many of those earmarks went to military contractors for projects in lawmakers’ home districts.

Under the new restrictions, not-for-profit institutions like schools and colleges, state and local governments, research groups, social service centers and others are still free to receive earmarks. The new restrictions, for example, would still allow the type of award to local governmental agencies that became infamous in 2005 with Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” ...

The practice of inserting earmarks into spending bills, once used fairly sparingly by Congress as a way of imposing its budget priorities on the executive branch, has mushroomed, with lobbyists competing for the attention of committee members who control the money. Congress, which can award no-bid contracts at its discretion, doled out nearly $16 billion in awards last fiscal year.
[Emphasis added]

Obviously, the House hasn't gone far enough because it excludes not-for-profit groups. They too should have to go through the winnowing of the budget process. At least it's a start, however. That the Senate won't even go this far isn't surprising, given its tradition as the world's most powerful country club with membership financed by corporate America. As the article points out, this is going to complicate the reconciliation process even further, although we know who will win that battle.

I have no real objection to pork. Members of Congress are supposed to represent their constituents as well as work for the betterment of the nation. That said, I still think that if a project benefits a district, or a state, or a region it should go through the process, including the debate on its worthiness for the nation as a whole, not surreptitiously inserted into a bill so late in the process that members of Congress and the public it is supposed to serve are unaware of its existence.

But what do I know. I'm neither a congress critter nor a well-financed lobbyist.

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