Last Year: Earmarks = The Bubonic Plague
Last year, the major presidential candidates each made very moralistic arguments condemning "earmarks." Earmarks are provisions in federal budget legislation which direct agencies to spend allocated money on specific projects.
Obama made opposition to earmarks a centerpiece of his campaign. He even pledged not to request any earmarks for fiscal year 2009. And during his speech to Congress on Tuesday, Obama proudly announced that the stimulus was "free of earmarks." Furthermore, Obama, Clinton, and McCain all co-sponsored an unsuccessful legislative provision that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Boy have things changed!
This Year: Earmarks = "What We Do"
Although Obama fought off efforts by lawmakers who wanted to insert earmarks into the stimulus package, it seems that he might have capitulated this time around. According to an article on Bloomberg.Com, the House will soon approve a budget that contains $7.7 billion in funding for 8,570 special projects (roughly 2% of the budget).
Legislation which passed during the Fall of 2008 contains an additional $6.6 billion in earmarks. Despite all of the anti-earmark rhetoric during the presidential campaign, the nonpartisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that the total amount of earmarks for 2009 (if the earmarks are not slashed from the final bill) is only $500 million less than last year's total.
The top Senators from both parties have responded to the earmark issue. Senator Harry Reid defends earmarks as allowing Congress to exercise its constitutional authority over spending. Directing spending is "what we do," Reid says. His argument is not without merit. In the absence of a specific allocation, the executive agencies have wide latitude over the use of budgetary authority. But this certainly contradicts the message that the candidates advanced during the presidential campaign. Reid has a response for this too: Congress is "a separate branch of government."
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who once bragged about his ability to bring bacon to his home state of Kentucky, says that he worries less about the "content" of the budget than its overall size. In other words, the inclusion of earmarks in the budget does not bother McConnell. Because both parties have padded the bill with earmarks, the position by Reid and McConnell should not surprise readers.
Examining the Pork
The Bloomberg article provides details of some of the pork in the proposed budget. Also, the Taxpayers for Common Sense website has a very extensive description of earmarks in the proposed budget, which the organization continues to update (here is the link).
Below, I have summarized some of the proposed earmarks. Do you consider these expenditures "reasonable," given the current economic crisis?
* 400,000, to combat bullying in Montana (huh?)
* 1.8 million, "swine odor and manure management in Iowa" (I suspect this might be a fairly important environmental issue in an agricultural state like Iowa)
* 900,000, Chicago's Adler Planetarium (requested by Rahm Emanuel before he left the House)
* 190,000, Chicago's Children's Memorial Research Center (Emanuel)
* 238,000, Academy for Urban School Leadership (Emanuel)
* 190,000, Advocate Health Care (Emanuel)
* 95,000, Kohl Children Museum of Greater Chicago (Emanuel)
* 95,000, Peoria Riverfront Museum (requested by Ray LaHood before he became Transportation Secretary)
* 381,000, University of Illinois College of Medicine (LaHood)
* 951,500, Sustainable Las Vegas (Shelley Berkeley and Harry Reid)
* 143,000, Las Vegas Natural History Museum (Reid)
* 190,000, Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming (Barbara Cubin)
* 381,000 for Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City (Jerrold Nadler)