President Obama has been roundly criticized for signing the $410 billion omnibus spending bill because it contained thousands of earmarks. Thinking that the president would veto a bill that was necessary to keep the government running — and was largely crafted under the Bush administration — because it contained so many earmarks was naive. Instead, he called for more transparency to reduce earmark abuse.
Thanks to Sen. John McCain, who made ending earmarks a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, the practice of securing funding for local projects has a bad name. Certainly, there has been earmark abuse — mainly by committee chairs (who for six of the past eight years were Republicans) who tack funding for pet projects onto must-pass bills at the last minute.
Worse, seniority and party rank, not the importance of specific projects, often determine who gets the most earmark money. For years, Republican Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who chaired the Appropriations Committee until 2007, secured the largest amount of money through earmarks, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. In 2008, he secured nearly $900 million in earmarks. Maine got about $150 million.
Most earmarks are for legitimate and needed work. Earmarks, for example, have helped the University of Maine move forward with several composite material projects, which have spun off new businesses, with employees and contracts that contribute to the state’s economy.
President Obama, after signing the spending bill, set the appropriate standards for earmarks. First, they must have a “legitimate and worthy” public purpose, he said. Earmark requests should be posted on the requesting member’s Web site so they can be examined and they should be subject to public hearings, a step the Senate Appropriations Committee recently took.
These are good standards that have long been supported by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. But posting them on a centralized Web site would be better than requiring people to look at 535 Web sites to see all earmark requests. Government watchdog groups will do this anyway.
Another option would be to allocate a little money — earmarks totaled only 1 percent of the spending in the spending bill signed by President Obama this week — to each state based on its population. States’ congressional delegations could use a competitive process to fund the best projects rather than the current system that is based more on seniority and lobbying than the relative merits of individual projects.
Earmarks won’t go away. Even if they were prohibited, members of Congress would find ways to fund pet projects. Requiring this be done through an open and public process will help ensure federal money is put to the best use.