There Is No Earmark Moratorium


Eliza Newlin Carney has an interesting article in today’s National Journal about the fall of earmarks and how that will affect the internal bargaining involved in passing appropriations bills this year. In the past, earmarks were used as bargaining chips by the majority to secure needed votes from straying members and as local prizes to tout to constituents back home. In a post-Tea Party environment the notion of bargaining chips for lawmakers or constituents is toxic and earmarks have gone underground.

While I found that section of Carney’s article to be interesting, I have to point out that her article also helps to disprove the notion of an earmark moratorium.

Here’s some relevant text from Carney:

Lawmakers who want to steer money toward their states and districts can still put in requests to federal agencies, a process called “phone-marking” or “letter-marking.”

They also can write bills that fail to name a pet project but that apply narrowly to only one funding recipient. Some lawmakers will also fight to preserve money for highways, water resources projects, and controversial weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine—battles that will now move to the fore.

Let’s start with the second paragraph. This is just describing earmarks. These could easily be viewed as earmarks by definition, so I don’t see how this circumvents the supposed earmark moratorium. If they do not qualify as earmarks–particularly, “bills that fail to name a pet project but that apply narrowly to only one funding recipient”–then there is no real moratorium.

The first paragraph describes the attempts of a lawmaker to try to influence the appropriations process once an agency has received the money from Congress and is deciding where to spend it. Now the lawmakers may be doing this at the behest of a lobbyist or a local company, but it is also possible that the lawmaker believes that the company in their district could do the best job or that their district deserves the money. Isn’t this the job of a lawmaker? Aren’t they supposed to represent their district?

People may want an appropriations process that exists in a vacuum, but none exists. Lawmakers can and do try to influence agency decisions on spending. There may even be lobbyists pushing lawmakers to do this. What is needed is not the elimination of one form of directed spending, but disclosure of all forms of directed spending.

The truth is that Congress chose the easy route on dealing with earmarks. The moratorium is temporary and cosmetic. Lawmakers will still direct spending as it is their prerogative to do so. Only now they won’t disclose how they are doing it.

The real route of reform would start with the creation of a permanent, centralized earmark database, including both earmarks approved and earmarks requested. They could follow this by approving the disclosure of lobbying contacts. This would allow the public to see the contacts between lawmakers and earmark lobbyists to discourage bad behavior.

Even further, the House Ethics Committee could have ceased shielding lawmakers from ethical complaints by having properly reviewed and taken action in the PMA Group earmark investigation. The committee received numerous e-mails showing lobbyists tying the receipt of earmarks directly to their campaign contributions to lawmakers, but decided to take no action. An honest reading of the documents in this case could have led Congress to real earmark reform before the enactment of a pandering earmark moratorium that appears to be riddled with loopholes.