Some states seem to have earmarks written all over them. Say the word and most people think of Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” West Virginia is well-known for having drawn billions in earmarked projects through the efforts of the “king of pork,” the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.
So it may come as a surprise that Alaska and West Virginia will not be the biggest losers if congressional Republicans and the Obama administration make good on their promises to stop earmarking federal dollars for specific pet projects promoted by individual legislators.
Another state that could lose from an earmark ban is Mississippi. Based on its share of taxes paid, Mississippi gets more than 11 times more than its share of earmarks, according to an analysis
from Brandon Arnold, director of government relations at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group.
Earmarks allow lawmakers to insert money for projects back home as part of much larger congressional spending bills. Among the recent earmarks for Mississippi, for example, is half a million dollars for the University of Southern Mississippi’s “cannabis eradication” program that is supposed to help law enforcement officials detect indoor marijuana-growing operations. That was tucked away in the federal Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010. The president would have to veto the entire multi-billion dollar bill to prevent federal dollars from going to any particular project.
|TOP 10 STATES, PER CAPITA EARMARKS
|Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense FY 2010
The discussion over earmarks in Washington is part of a bigger debate that will consume the incoming Congress: how to create jobs and bolster the fragile recovery while also shrinking the federal deficit. The decisions will have huge consequences for states. The federal budget provides about 30 percent of state revenue, making it the largest single source of funds for many states and a prime target for trimming from a penny-pinching Congress . “These states will still get federal funds” if a ban goes through, says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, “but no doubt about it, they will get dinged.”
Ellis’s organization is one of three watchdog groups that recently launched an online database
of congressional earmark requests submitted for 2011. The requests total $130 billion.
Critics as varied as Tea Party supporters and the Obama administration say earmarks represent government waste and create opportunities for corruption. They like to point out that it was an earmark that brought down lobbyist Jack Abramoff and another one that landed California Congressman Duke Cunningham in jail.
But supporters, particularly in Congress, say a ban on earmarks would rob lawmakers of their authority to set the spending and taxing policies of the nation, relinquishing it to the executive branch. “Getting rid of earmarks does not save taxpayers any money, reduces transparency, and gives more power to the Obama administration,” says earmark advocate James Inhofe, a Republican U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.
Both sides agree that earmarks account for only about 1 percent of federal spending and that ending them won’t do much to erase the federal deficit. But even some of the most ardent earmark supporters now grudgingly admit that the practice has become an emblem of inefficiency, and are supporting a ban. Among them is one of the champion earmarkers, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“Make no mistake. I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them,” McConnell said
last month. “But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.” The incoming GOP majority in the House has agreed to end earmarking and Republicans in the Senate vow to do the same even though the GOP is outnumbered in that chamber.
Meanwhile, the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
has called for eliminating all earmarks, placing the savings at $16 billion by 2015. A few of the 9,000 examples of “parochial earmark spending” that the commission says should end include $1.9 million for a “Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service” in Connecticut, $900,000 for a program encouraging Oklahoma students to role-play how to make tough choices as members of Congress, and $238,000 for ancient-style sailing canoes in Hawaii.
Where the power lies
It’s never been a secret why certain states get more earmarked federal dollars. The power of the purse comes from the congressional appropriations committees, and states that have senior members on those panels get the biggest payoff. Alaska has fallen from the top of the earmark perch in part because a former chairman of one of those panels, the late Senator Ted Stevens, lost his seat in 2008. North Dakota, which currently ranks second in per capita earmarks, could drop in the rankings because veteran Senator Byron Dorgan, another Appropriations member, opted not to run for reelection this year.
All told, nine of the top 10 per-capita earmark states are represented by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, including Hawaii and Mississippi, notes a report from Taxpayers for Common Sense. The 10th is represented by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who continues to defend the practice.
Critics questioned the GOP’s resolve to curb earmarks after House Republicans selected U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky to head the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. Some in Congress call Rogers, who is credited with winning some 135 earmarks for his district, at a cost of $246 million over the past two years, “The Prince of Pork.” Rogers, however, has applauded
the earmark ban as the first step in reining in Washington’s spending spree.
“Congress is not an egalitarian institution,” says James Savage, a University of Virginia professor who tracks earmarking. He says he’s glad earmarks remain the focus of public attention. “There’s a real reason to look at earmarks,” he says. “They promote ineffective government and bad public policy.”