Seeing Earmarks

Posted April 04, 2010, at 9:01 p.m.

The 2008 presidential contest featured lots of debate about congressional earmarks, the funding purely for local projects that are attached to federal appropriation bills. Sen. John McCain railed against earmarks as evidence of a wasteful government, and supporters cited oddball-sounding projects they funded; unless, of course, the oddball project was in their corner of the country.

Maine’s 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree is taking a fresh approach to earmark requests. She has asked those requesting funding to explain their project in a three-minute presentation to her staff. The requests are videotaped and then posted on her Web site.

The scores of requests include: the National Park Service seeking $3 million for land acquisition for Acadia National Park; $600,000 for “Enhancing the U.S. National Culture Collection for Marine Phytoplankton” by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences; LifeFlight Foundation seeking $624,000 to improve access to emergency medical services in rural Maine; $3.3 million sought by the state Department of Conservation for the Katahdin Forest Expansion 3: Gulf Hagas; and the University of Maine’s request for $1 million for the Maine Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative.

Each request is persuasive in its way. Most are tied to state government or the university system. And the video requests are … well, many are dry as day-old toast. But Rep. Pingree is to be commended for bringing transparency to the process, and for letting those lobbying for the funds also make the case to the public.

In all, earmarks account for about 1 to 2 percent of the federal budget, so the indignation among fiscal conservatives about them is disingenuous. New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, likened earmark angst to a town meeting where people “argue over a new [police] cruiser for two hours and then approve the school budget in 10 minutes,” according to a 2008 article in the Union Leader newspaper. That seems about right.

In an interview with Maine Public Radio, Rep. Pingree said she would support elimination of earmarks, “but as long as [this system] exists, I want to make sure that funds that can be accessed to help out the Maine economy and Maine institutions are there.”

President Barack Obama has proposed that earmarks total no more than $7.8 billion, which is what they were in 1994 when Republicans won control of Congress. The president also wants to mandate that any private company services or products paid for by earmarks be put out to competitive bid.

Though earmarks don’t amount to much money, perhaps the best reform would be to concede that federal funding for local projects is desirable, but to mandate equity. Rather than have money for special projects doled out based on the relative clout of members of Congress, each congressional district could get the same amount of money. The representative would have to justify his or her selections to Congress.

And voters could watch the videos to see if they agree.

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