Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner (April 8) writes that Minnesota's U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Kline are wrong to forgo special-appropriation requests in protest of what they see as a broken, wasteful system of spending. "The problem isn't earmarking," Gaertner writes, but rather "abuse" of the earmarking system.
But Kline and Bachmann understand that the earmark process invites abuse and corruption. It is emblematic of wasteful Washington spending.
An earmark is funding requested, usually by a single member of Congress, for a project that narrowly benefits his or her region -- and sometimes a small group of constituents. Earmarks circumvent the usual procedures and safeguards erected by Congress to review expenditures. They are often slipped into huge spending bills without debate hours before the final vote.
Notably, unlike federal contracts, earmarked projects are awarded without competitive bidding; the recipients need only to win the favor of their local congressman.
Gaertner is right that many worthy projects here in Minnesota have been funded by earmarks. But there is no reason these most-valuable projects cannot be funded through the normal, transparent appropriations process.
Very often, earmarks are nothing more than pet projects aimed at increasing a representative's support in his or her district. They are awarded with no regard for national or even statewide policy priorities. Their primary value is political. Scrapping the earmarking method would open the process to much-needed public scrutiny and accountability.
Any kind of government waste is wrong, but earmarking has become nothing short of an epidemic. For the current fiscal year, Congress bypassed the normal budgetary process and stuffed 11,610 earmarked pet projects worth $17.2 billion into its appropriations bills. And because Congress did its appropriating in this unaccountable fashion, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., for example, was able to secure $211,509 in scarce federal funds for olive fruit-fly research in Paris. Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe brought home $188,000 for Maine's Lobster Institute, which boasts discovering lobster dog biscuits. These are just two of the thousands of wasteful earmarks passed this year that I doubt Gaertner would call an "enormous benefit to our state."
The waste created by earmarks is severe, but they have other pernicious consequences.
First, an environment in which a single member of Congress can bypass normal congressional accountability to secure funds for a single entity is fertile for corruption. And at the very least, it creates an unsavory appearance when, for example, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a staunch defender of the earmark status quo, can singlehandedly direct some $166 million in taxpayer-funded earmarks to 47 recipients and rake in $113,050 worth of campaign donations from those same beneficiaries.
Furthermore, the earmarking process creates an illusion that Minnesotans are getting their money's worth from Washington. There's usually a great deal of hoopla when the federal government finances a local project. It almost seems free. But in reality, Minnesotans get only 73 cents back on every dollar we send to D.C.
Of course, the many members of Congress who continue to request earmarks do not deserve scorn. Gaertner is correct in noting that many earmarks requested by lawmakers represent legitimate, worthwhile government funding. And there's a reasonable argument that if Congress is going to spend our tax dollars on earmarked projects anyway, their representative should fight to bring as many of those dollars back home as possible.
Nevertheless, Bachmann and Kline, along with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, Republican Sen. John McCain and other members of Congress who courageously decline earmark requests, should be praised for taking the first steps to end this wasteful scheme of government spending. Many leaders from both sides of the aisle speak of ending earmarks, but few put their money where their mouths are.
Andy Brehm is a student at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is former press secretary to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.