Let’s say you’re a freshman lawmaker on his way to Washington with a mandate (allegedly) to shrink the size of government, and you take a hacksaw to federal spending. Trolling for low-hanging fiscal fruit, you’ve fixed your attention on earmarking, that pesky practice of burying spending appropriations for your constituents in larger bills. A little anti-earmark handwringing should burnish your tea party cred, your top advisers say. And hitching a ride on the DeMint/Coburn anti-earmark train couldn’t hurt.
But a knack for securing federal funding for much-needed projects back home can buy a lifetime of support (see the late Murtha, John). Earmark foes, old and new, know they have to commandeer money, but without the appearance of doing so. Their political futures depend on it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to sidestep the formal appropriations process.
Take the example of “lettermarking” by then-Rep. (now Sen.) Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The New York Times reported that Kirk sent a letter to the Department of Education last September, asking for money “to support students and educational programs” in a local school district. That district later received about $1.1 million. Where’d that money come from? President Obama’s stimulus package, which Kirk had vehemently criticized.
The Times runs down some other alternate funding strategies, including phonemarking, where lawmakers call up federal agencies to request money for pet projects. They can also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in an agency’s budget and then “forcefully request” that thh extra money be spent in their districts. All of these measures circumvent congressional procedures, and, consequently, any degree of legislative transparency. When it comes to securing money for their home districts, lawmakers—even those who forgo earmarks—are limited only by their own powers of persuasion.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations have issued ineffectual executive orders instructing agencies not to fund projects based on communications from Congress. As it turns out, though, federal agencies think twice before turning down spending requests from the people who control the purse strings.
Republicans have shown no serious motivation to reform the current appropriations system. The DeMint-led effort to ban them among Senate Republicans failed—perhaps, in part, because it didn’t take on practices like lettermarking. Demonizing earmarks doesn’t stop appropriators; it merely gives conservatives a cause to rally voter support. Meanwhile, it forces lawmakers to resort to backroom dealing that frustrates their constituents and breeds mistrust.
Not all earmarks are created equal. Some are bridges to nowhere; others are bridges to sanitation faciliites, job-creating infrastructure improvements, and vital ecological research projects. As it currently exists, the appropriations process presents a no-win paradigm for lawmakers: damned if you do, potentially screwed by voters if you don’t.