Tony Soprano Earmarks

A commentary from Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace yesterday.  The topic was the evolving alternative to earmarks, what Birnbaum calls “phonemarks.” 

Here’s the basic idea (from the transcript available at the Marketplace website):

Eager to avoid the bad publicity of legislative earmarking, lawmakers are secretly calling or writing bureaucrats and demanding that they fund their pet projects by fiat. These projects-via-telephone, or “phonemarks,” are the hottest new gimmick on the Washington scene.

Executive branch officials can dole out millions of dollars with impunity. And they avoid the scrutiny of the public, since they are done quietly and without any disclosure.

Earmarks actually have to be written down in a public law. Phonemarks, on the other hand, are accomplished through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand and nobody but the lawmaker and the bureaucrat need to know for sure.

My preferred descriptor is “Tony Soprano earmarks.”  As I wrote in a January 22 column for Business Week:

Even if transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises these projects won’t reappear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations Committee would write a letter to the department head suggesting something like: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?”

Can you really blame a government department head who reads a letter like that—from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency—and obliges? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano saying to the corner grocery store owner: “Nice little place you got here. Damn shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Now for a secret.  The big problem in Washington isn’t earmarks.  They’re just a symptom of the real problem: policymakers who believe the federal government should be all things to all people.  Pork projects – disclosed or not – are inevitable in such an environment no matter what you call ‘em.