Greasing the stimulus with pork?


Glenn Reynolds flags the latest twist on earmarks — we’ll have them, but call them something else:

At some point, [House Majority Whip James] Clyburn [(D-S.C.)] noted, there will be a list of projects funded by the package, and Members want to have input.

The list is going to come from somewhere, he said.

House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) questioned whether the bill can truly be considered free of earmarks when it will be loaded up with complicated formulas directing spending.

Calling it an earmark-free thing and then saying there are established formulas doesn’t sound very earmark-free to me, said Lewis, who noted that the funding will lead to a list of local projects either way.

Are those earmarks even though the president says they aren’t? What are they then?

Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), acknowledged that Obey has been meeting with Members to hear their concerns, but she said Obey is maintaining a strict no-earmark policy that will prevent lawmakers from naming any specific project.

A few thoughts: When I trained reporters on earmarks last year, one of the questions I was frequently asked went something like this, “Well, look, my member only got $4 million in earmarks total–it’s not a lot of money. Why should I (or my readers) care?” The reason we should care is that, for many members, earmarks become the main focus of their attention. It’s not the $800 billion stimulus (or adding trillions of unpaid-for spending to the deficit) that commands their attention. Instead, they’re fixated on the $3 or $4 million they’ll bring home to their districts (accompanied with glowing press releases and photo ops with giant checks…). Even in matters of war and peace, members can be counted on to put parochial interests first–to be swayed by the allure of the big check:

To entice support from wavering members, Democratic leaders included in the bill billions of dollars on such unrelated matters as support for spinach growers and peanut storage.

So it’s not surprising that leadership would want the ability to include earmarks in the stimulus–that’s how Congress works, after all. I suspect that trying to pass a stimulus bill without earmarks would be like trying to start an engine without oil.

The means of hiding the pork — the formulas — can take many forms. Here’s one possibility, from some transition rules in the Internal Revenue Code (culled from here):

(K) A project is described in this subparagraph if”

(i) the project involves a joint venture between a utility company and a paper company for a supercalendered paper mill, and at least $50,000,000 was incurred or committed with respect to such project before March 1, 1986, or

(ii) the project involves a paper mill for the manufacture of newsprint (including a cogeneration facility) is generally based on a written design and feasibility study that was completed on December 15, 1981, and will be placed in service before January 1, 1991, or

(iii) the project is undertaken by a Maine corporation and involves the modernization of pulp and paper mills in Millinocket and/or East Millinocket, Maine, or

(iv) the project involves the installation of a paper machine for production of coated publication papers, the modernization of a pulp mill, and the installation of machinery and equipment with respect to related processes, as of December 31, 1985, in excess of $50,000,000 was incurred for the project, as of July 1986, in excess of $150,000,000 was incurred for the project, and the project is located in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, or

(v) the project involves property of a type described in ADR classes 26.1, 26.2, 25, 00.3 and 00.4 included in a paper plant which will manufacture and distribute tissue, towel or napkin products; is located in Effingham County, Georgia; and is generally based upon a written General Description which was submitted to the Georgia Department of Revenue on or about June 13, 1985.

Glenn is alarmed on grounds of fiscal prudence–fair enough. I’m more concerned about what the legislative formulas, whatever form they may take, will do to our ability to follow the money. In other words, if the stimulus bill is going to have earmarks, let’s have the list, including the sponsor, the amount of money committed, the name of the beneficiary and the justification for the project, and let’s have that list online as soon as possible.