In the two years since Congress banned pork-barrel spending projects known as “earmarks,” Minnesota lawmakers have discovered two things about the new fiscal climate. They can’t always get what they want; and even when they try sometimes, they don’t get what they need.
The latest example came when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party fiscal hawk, was forced to go to the State Capitol recently to lobby for about $400 million worth of improvements to traffic-clogged Interstate 94 and Hwy. 10, in the heart of her district.
The early verdict from the state Department of Transportation: No way; not now.
Before the January 2011 ban, which the GOP-led House renewed in November, Bachmann could have single-handedly funded at least part of the project directly by slipping an earmark into a road spending bill — a prerogative Congress had granted its members for decades.
“It would have been easy,” said Norman Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress and politics for the American Enterprise Institute. Bachmann’s humbling experience in St. Paul, he said, “is illustrative of a post-earmark world.”
A different world
But earmarks are a thing of the past, a relic of the days before massive trillion-dollar budget deficits and the politics of fiscal discipline.
From road improvements on I-94 to water systems in southwestern Minnesota, congressional lawmakers are finding it harder to fund local projects. They’re also discovering that in some cases, the roadblocks and delays are costing taxpayers more money, not less.
As it is, Bachmann also has been trying to press House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to set aside federal money for the highway improvements, which would add lanes on I-94 between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, one of the fastest-growing regional corridors between Chicago and Denver.
But even with the backing of business leaders and bipartisan support from Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Bachmann’s options are limited. Bachmann declined an interview for this story, but through a spokesman said she is “working within the current House rules to highlight the transportation needs in her district.”
Given Washington’s budget constraints, prevailing on Shuster to set aside — some would say earmark — money for Bachmann’s district is a long shot, said Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It’s not going to happen,” Walz said.
‘Tied their hands’
Walz has had his own problems with the earmark ban, which has sapped federal funding for a massive water project in southwestern Minnesota called the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, one of Minnesota’s largest infrastructure projects in years. Even though Congress approved it more than a decade ago, the project has relied mostly on annual earmarks for the bulk of its roughly $550 million cost.
Until 2009, that was not a problem. The project diverting Missouri River water benefited communities in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa and is supported strongly by lawmakers in all three states, including Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Tea Party ally of Bachmann.
King helped direct $10 million to the project in 2010, the last year before the earmark ban went into effect.
Over the previous two years, Congress had allocated more than $25 million a year to the project. Since the earmark ban took effect, funding through the Bureau of Reclamation and Rural Water Supply, the federal agency that oversees funding for the project, has slowed to a trickle.
In 2011, the federal government chipped in $2 million, followed by $5.5 million in 2012. This year’s funding will be determined through a bureaucratic budget process, not by congressional appropriators.
“We are a poster child for the unintended consequences of the earmark ban,” said Troy Larson, executive director of the Lewis & Clark project. “At a time when we need the funding the most, Congress has tied their hands.”
Meanwhile, local communities such as Luverne, Minn., have had to spend their own public money on interim water measures. Pipestone saw an ethanol plant canceled because of a lack of water. And since small federal outlays are not keeping up with the rate of inflation, the project is getting more expensive and falling further behind budget every year.
“This effort to save money through the earmark ban is actually costing the taxpayers more money,” Larson said.
Franken has secured a commitment to increase planned funding levels for rural water projects in a Senate budget blueprint. But in the convoluted world of federal budgeting, setting higher spending caps on paper is no guarantee that a project will actually get any more money. “There’s a lot of work left to be done to secure this funding,” Franken said.
Meanwhile, the I-94 and Lewis & Clark projects could help revive a debate about earmarks, particularly those that further bricks and mortar infrastructure needs. “I’m hearing more conversations [in Congress]” Walz said.
Bachmann, for her part, has argued in the past that building roads and bridges should not be considered earmarks. But in a November organizational meeting, House GOP leaders nixed an effort to weaken the ban.
Balanced against any easing are memories of the proposed $400 million Gravina Island Bridge, which would have served an Alaska community of some 50 people. Known as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the earmark became synonymous with wasteful pork-barrel spending.
Among the skeptics is U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., one of the first members of Congress to reject federal earmarks for his district. “Congressman Kline prefers a process that cuts through federal bureaucratic red tape by allowing projects to be prioritized in a merit-based manner,” said his spokesman, Troy Young, “rather than the previous broken and corrupt system of earmarking which allowed Washington to spend money it didn’t have on projects most of Congress knew nothing about.”
Critics of the ban, including former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, an Iron Range Democrat who earmarked millions of dollars in projects around the state, say the issue is not how much the governments spends, but who spends it.
Other reformers say that as long as the process is made transparent to the public, elected officials are better suited than Washington bureaucrats to determine which local projects should receive federal funds.
Said Franken: “We’re the ones with our ears to the ground back home.”