Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You Won't Believe Your Eyes: Despite Anti-Earmark Fervor and Economic Crisis, Proposed Budget Would Fund Thousands of Pork Projects

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)


dualdiagnosis said...

What I find fascinating is Obama's use of the deficit he "inherited" as a club to beat down on opponents with.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't he vote for all those budget busting budgets when he was in the Senate?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Obama did not get in the Senate until two years ago. A great deal of Bush's deficit came from the tax cuts he passed when he first got in office. Each year, the loss of revenue adds up. And when the economy turned downward, this made it even worse -- the government receives less tax revenue due to high unemployment, less capital gains, etc. The Iraq War also created a lot of spending. All and all, Bush was quite reckless, by increasing spending AND cutting taxes.

I do not see Obama using the deficit as a club, but it "can" explain acting on the economy, even if it costs money. Additional tax cuts, for example, are the same as "additional spending" from an accounting perspective. So, if Obama cuts taxes or spends money to help stimulate the economy either choice would put pressure on the deficit and debt (unless spending is cut elsewhere).

I do not agree with all of the stimulus. I though it would have been more of a stimulus, if people were given direct cash to spend, rather than giving 10 extra bucks a month in tax cuts. This is exactly the approach that Obama disapproved of during the primaries, when Clinton and McCain proposed a gas tax moratorium. He argued that it would cost a lot in terms of revenue, but would only give the average household about 30 bucks a month. But he's doing the same thing with the middle-class tax cuts in the stimulus package.

Anonymous said...

given the present state of the economy I would pay for people to dig random holes and fill them in as long as they spent the money not save it!

dualdiagnosis said...

There is a pretty strong consensus that lowering the tax rate, such as the capital gains tax, actually increases tax revenue. Obama himself admitted such in a debate , but indicated that he would still push for an increase for the sake of "fairness". JFK lowered tax rates and revenue increased, same with Reagan.

As for Obama and the dems they voted for the budgets along with the republicans, pushing for increased Medicare spending and such. There was also bipartisan support for the tax cuts, much more so than what has been shown for the stimulus.

There was actually bipartisanship shown in the opposition to the porkulous package.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Sorry guys - Obama arrived in the Senate in '05; you cannot edit on here without reposting the entire comment.

DD -- I would not say there is "strong support" for the principle that tax cuts lead to greater revenue. At most, there is great support for the idea that they can, under certain circumstances. There is also overwhelming support that 1. Bush's tax cuts did not increase revenue over the long haul and 2. cutting taxes and escalating spending was reckless on his part.

You are wrong about the "bipartisan" support for the tax cuts. I analyzed this in another thread, which actually accuses the Democrats of being complicit in many policies that liberals blame for the economic crisis. Here's a clip:

Bush's Tax Cuts for the Wealthy
Most economists believe that Bush's tax cuts ultimately led to budget deficits, which will only increase over the next few years. Regardless of whether the tax cuts caused the recession, which most economists doubt, Democrats can actually claim innocence on this issue. The measure authorizing the tax cuts passed in the Senate by a 51-50 vote (Vice President Cheney cast the tiebreaker). The vote was highly partisan, with almost all Democrats voting against the measure and all Republicans voting for it. In the House, the vote was equally partisan.

Hold Them Accountable Part II: If Conservatives Caused the Economic Crisis, They Had a Lot of Help from Democrats!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous: I'd rather see either:1. direct subsidies for people to spend (rather than a nickel and diming tax cut) and 2. real deliberation over projects, rather than "tit for tat" earmarks.

dualdiagnosis said...


There were 2 pieces of legislation lowering taxes, 1 in 2001 and 1 in 2003. The one affecting tax rates for individuals was in 2001- H R 1836 (or EGTRRA).
211 r's and 28 d's plus 1 ind voted for this bill in the House, in the Senate 12 d's and 46 r's voted in favor.

The 2003 measure passed with 9 Dems in favor total.

dualdiagnosis said...

edit- both affected individual and other tax rates.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Neither of us has a link -- I got mine from the Library of Congress legislative service (Thomas). But, regardless, you see very little support by Democrats for the tax cuts. Bush did not need Democratic votes to pass them, just as Obama didn't need Republican votes to pass the stimulus (except perhaps to avoid a filibuster). Your stats actually help my argument, I believe.

Jason Papanikolas said...


I find myself in agreement with you on the basic sentiments. Earmarks are not a worthwhile use of govt. funds in the current economic climate. That said, earmarks only account for something like 1 or 2% of the federal budget, so I suppose that I can see why, now that the election is over, no one is overly concerned about earmarks.

It's hypocritical as hell, but then when has hypocrisy stopped a politician. The bigger issue I feel is the size of the federal debt. Deficit spending is all well and good (be it tax cuts or spending) in a bad economy IF the federal balance sheet is sound. The problem, of course, is that with a $50 or $60 trillion debt, our balance sheet is not sound.

I do wish we could stop arguing about 2% of the federal budget and concentrate on the real economic issues: how the stimulus will impact our debt going forward and how we are going to resolve the total debt to bring long-term solvency to the federal balance sheet.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Jason. Thanks for the post. Well, I agree that normally, I would not worry about a tiny portion of the budget. I started this thread for two reasons.

First: Someone needs to keep a record of departures from campaign rhetoric. The mainstream media are not reliable sources. It's up to the blog world to create a record.

Second: During an economic crisis where people are being told to sacrifice, private sector individuals are having their salaries determined by government, and people are losing homes and jobs everyday -- with all of this going on, pork matters.

I remember witnessing a pretty nasty debate in the 90s over AFDC which was also a very tiny portion of the budget. The debates, nonetheless, led to a reform of "welfare as we know it."

FLRN said...

$400, 000 for bullying in Montana? What is that all about? Why not just send our Moms? You could send the two of them there for a week and there is no doubt their methods could handle the situation. Problem solved for say 4,000 dollars (flight, food and lodging) it would get taken care of, and then some!
Darren - you are right at times like this PORK does matter least we dine watery soup at the homeless shelters around the country. Thanks for acting as the highlighter here as the rush to approve threw a veil over the spending plan hiding the truth from taxpayers and some of our own lawmakers. This was my criticism from the start! It is lunacy and ludicrous to think we can control the monies after the fact - the Department of Revenue doesn't even have anyone in place to manage the oversight! When you let the doom-sayers control the debate and discussion effectively silencing critical thinking and analysis, we with keep having to pay bullies for more crap (as you so accurately pointed out). I will agree with lawmakers here something does stink and it is not just in Iowa - smells more like DC. On second thought, never mind the field trip to Montana, send our parent s to Washington - I assure you we would see some CHANGE.

Hershblogger said...


You say "Although Obama fought off efforts by lawmakers who wanted to insert earmarks into the stimulus package..."

If he did, it was simply semantic sleight of hand. Earmarks are money set aside for a particular purpose for a particular Congresscritter's projects. The amounts for MagLev trains, for one example, do not specify Las Vegas as an endpoint. I do not doubt that it will be, however. Another example is saving the Salt Marsh Mouse. Coincidentally, it only lives in Nancy Pelosi's district.

The truth is that Obama can say there were no earmarks in the stimulus bill because it covered anything and everything. Many pet projects are included, the money just has yet to be divvied up.

One more point on the Stimulus, the reason people like Senator Schumer don't want the States to have discretion in spending much of the money is that, without federal control, it might not go where Senators and Congressmen want it to.

Finally, Obama's own name was, until yesterday, attached to an earmark in the $400+ billion dollar appropriation just approved. He can claim that "going over spending bills line-by-line" doesn't apply to the Stimulus because he had excepted "emergencies." He can't claim that on a bill that was before the Senate while he was a Senator, and which was held over from consideration because George Bush threatened to veto it.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hershblogge: Although I have pointed out that Congress seems to have a new appreciation for earmarks, I believe that earmarks, like any other legislative item, should be discussed on their own merit. The problem with earmarks is that they often are just "tit for tat" handouts to which both parties allow consent because they can serve as bargaining chips to get legislation passed and they can help a lawmaker to build political support back home.

Framing this as a "states rights" issue, meaning that Congress is trying to keep states from spending money how they want, does not solve the problem for me. The Constitution gives Congress the power to spend; so federal accountability is perfectly normal -- and preferred. The problem with earmarks, however, is that they seem to lack accountabilty. They are just inserted at the behest of individual members of Congress without many details.

As frightening as this might sound, allowing the federal agencies to decide the specifics of all of the budget (which is what happens when the legislation does not specifically direct spending within the allocated categories) could lead to more wrongdoing. The agency heads are accountable to the president first and then to Congress. But Congress does not normally review their spending decisions, unless some basis for suspecting illegality exists.

Perhaps the answer should involve having all members of Congress actually disclose their support for an earmark (remarkably it is not always clear from the record who supports the expenditure) and to have the use of the expenditure detailed in the legislation (rather than saying "bullying in Montana"). At least that would make the handouts subject to he public scrutiny.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN - Yes, on the Moms Against Bullying! A much more cost-effective alternative.

Hershblogger said...


I didn't (intentionally) frame it as a "State's Rights," issue. I pointed out in this case that there were specific comments about not letting States pick the projects.

Schumer To White House: Governors Can't Turn Down Part Of Stimulus

As to accountability, the word can't even be used with a bill nobody even read before they voted for it. Accountable for what?

I think the original meaning of "earmark" should be applied:
By their earmarks, ye shall know them

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

When I (reluctantly) used the words "states rights," I qualified them by saying I was referring to your crtique of members of Congress who did not want states to control where the money went. Maybe it was just an observation, rather than critique.

Accountability means that whether they read it or not, if they voted for it, it's their decision. If nothing "specific" gets delegated, then unelected members of the executive branch get to decide where the money goes. You cannot remove them from office in 2010. That's what I mean by accountability.

I have read two articles today, which state that historically, the "deal" among members of Congress on earmarks is that the controlling party gets roughly 60 percent of them, while the minority party gets the rest. Apparently, this year's numbers follow the same pattern. In other words, to the extent this is problemtic, there is bipartisan culpability.

By the way, has anyone stated that they didn't have access to the text before they voted (I was reading it online)? Did anyone say they would have changed his or her vote? It was so partisan that I cannot imagine a scenario where someone would have cast a different vote (on either side of the table).

Hershblogger said...

I have difficulty with the concept that someone can assume responsibility for something when they don't know what that "something" is. That they are responsible for their decision is not in doubt. It's responsibility for the outcome I'm worried about.

Many non-specific things were included in the Stimulus and, I think we agree, will be delegated non-specifically. The trains are the working example.

I really don't think that a historical split of any percentage justifies the corrupt practice of earmarks. It isn't the money, which tends to be a small portion of a given bill, it's the concept of our representatives' tit for tat trading of our money as favors. This is simply institutionalized lobbying. I do not argue that the GOP is virtuous in this regard, I have railed and railed and railed against them for it.

I agree the text was available before the vote. 2/3 (I believe, maybe 3/4) was unsearchable because it included hand written notations. They had a few hours to read it. No one could understand 1400 pages in that time, even if they could have finished reading it. The largest single spending bill ever passed deserved more scrutiny. The "emergency" was entirely psychological. A month would not have mattered. Certainly 4 days wouldn't have, which is how long Obama felt he could delay in signing it.

The inability to exercise responsibility is itself a compelling reason to vote no.

Whether votes would have changed... I'd say unlikely, but if I wanted to defend a yes vote I'd want to be able to claim I'd voted that way based on knowledge, not partisanship. I doubt there is a single Congressman or Senator who can make that claim.

The only people who might have cast different votes are the 3 Senate "Republicans". A week of withering criticism might have had that result. Therefore, passage couldn't wait - even if signing could.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hersh: I believe that we can hold people accountable for "yay" or "nay" votes. If they do not know the content of a proposed law or do not trust the briefings, they should not offer their support. Republicans can explain to voters their "no" votes by saying that they didn't have full information. But I do not believe this would honestly explain their votes. As you said, the outcome would have been the same either way.

I agree that the package was rushed though -- and I argued that the short-term spending plan (which is really a tax cut, rather than a true stimulus) should have been debated first, followed by longer term goals, such as infrastructure development, etc. I have problems with the stimulus, as do other liberals. So we are unified around this. Most of the issues I have, however, have less to do with process than with content.

On earmarks - my position is that if things are transparent, then they are just like any other budget item. Again, accountability comes to mind. If someone votes for a statute that clearly contains earmarks, he or she becomes complicit with the persons who proposed them. If things are in the open, we can debate the policy and hold people accountable for their votes.

Hershblogger said...

We agree they are accountable for their votes. I would be more at ease if we agreed they are accountable for the results.

That is to say, I think content is at least equal to process. What if the Stimulus funded a provision to determine how to transform the United States into a theocracy?

Earmarks are not transparent and the corrupt majority who favor them will not ever let them be transparent, however much lip service has been paid to the idea.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Looks like we are close to agreeing on it all. I think voting in support or against legislation is a fairly accurate proxy for a lawmaker's view on the content of the legislation. So, we can hold them accountable on the content based on their votes. If they come back and say "well, I didn't know that this was in there," then my resonse is: "you should have abstained or voted against it.

On earmarks, I think we completely agree. As long as they are not transparent, they are not good for the public at all!

Ah, the beauty of exhanging and clarifying ideas!

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