Earmarking by Another Name

A NY Times report notes that there's plenty of wiggle room for legislators looking to send money to their home district

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Like many Republicans, Sen-elect Mark Steven Kirk vigorously opposes earmarks--those "pork-barrel" spending items that are tacked onto legislation in order to direct funds to pet projects in home districts. He isn't, however, adverse to "lettermarking"--a process that allows him to proposition a federal agency to direct funds to pet projects in his home district. What's the difference? That's the question that The New York Times' Ron Nixon floats in a report documenting the alternative methods to supplant the use of the now-"demonized" earmarks.

These tools detailed by Nixon include the aforementioned lettermarking, phonemarking (calling a federal agency to "request financing" for a project), and soft earmarks ("making suggestions" about where money should go). Many of these alternate "marking" efforts have been used by Congressmen who have held up earmarking as a symbol of wasteful federal spending. Naturally--as when a Hotline reporter found that Tea Party legislators had requested over a $1 billion dollars in earmarks--there have been some charges of "hypocrisy" in light of Nixon's report:

  • Ironic: The GOP Is 'Trying to Find Loopholes to Their Own Restrictions' Washington Monthly's blogger Steve Benen notes the irony of the same Republicans who wanted an earmark ban now scrambling "to find work-around solutions to the problems they created. In this case, that means earmarking without actually earmarking." This raises the question: why even ban earmarking in the first place? Benen writes: "Most of the time, even leading anti-earmark crusaders will concede that earmarks are a 'symbol' of an ugly process, and that may very well be true. The problem, though, with addressing a problem that doesn't really exist is that the solutions tend to be pretty silly."
  • Congressmen Can Earmark Without Even Trying  Parsing the NY Times findings, Siddhartha Mahanta at Mother Jones details the ease with which legislators can sidestep the "ineffectual executive orders instructing agencies not to fund projects based on communications from Congress" and the unwillingness of Republicans to reform the appropriations system. The real problem with "demonizing" earmarks is this, Mahanta figures: "it forces lawmakers to resort to backroom dealing that frustrates their constituents and breeds mistrust ... the appropriations process presents a no-win paradigm for lawmakers: damned if you do, potentially screwed by voters if you don't."
  • This Article About 'Exposing Hypocrisy' Doesn't Explain What's At Stake, figures Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post's Plum Line. "Earmarks (or their cousins) aren't about how much money the government will spend; they're about who makes the decisions: elected politicians or the bureaucracy, Congress or executive branch departments and agencies," Bernstein writes. "Politically, the earmark fight seems to be based on how easy it is to mock specific federally-funded projects. That, and the truly odd fact that federal spending is unpopular in general and popular when broken down into categories."
  • What Happens When Earmarking 'Goes Underground'  What The New York Times reported appears reminiscent of what happened when "Democrats imposed greater restrictions on lobbying," points out Suzy Khimm at Mother Jones. In the case of the underground lobbyists, many deregistered and schmoozed with officials in different locations in order to avoid having to log their visits at the White House. Similarly, "the earmarks workarounds are largely invisible, eluding public scrutiny and accountability." As more of these earmark loopholes come to light, however, "it's probably just a matter of time before earmarks lose their stigma and the conservative crusade against the practice wanes once again," guesses Khimm.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.