April 30, 2008 10:37AM

Anonymous Earmark Manifesto

Appropriations lobbyists have weathered a rough few years of media scrutiny, and a series of earmarking outrages has put pressure on Congress to pass minor reforms. Luckily there may be fewer vehicles for earmarks this year as Congress will probably pass only one or two appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2009 and leave the budget mess for a new president to sort out.

Congressional appropriators have well‐​rehearsed defenses of the earmarking process, and an anonymous appropriations lobbyist has joined the fray to strike back at earmark critics. I obtained a copy of a six‐​page document defending the earmark system called “Fairness of Congressional Earmarking Report,” which is circulating around Capitol Hill.

Earmark enthusiasts argue that the Congressional system of doling out money to local governments, businesses and special interest groups is better than giving “faceless bureaucrats” the ability to allocate federal funds. The anonymous white paper expands on this argument and tries to make the case that earmarking is a much fairer process than letting federal agencies allocate the money.

The author of the paper is a member of an exclusive clique of former appropriations staffers called the 302(b) Group, according to Washington Post lobbying columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum.

Whether earmarks are useful depends on one’s perspective. To appropriations lobbyists and groups that have difficulty obtaining federal funding through merit‐​based, competitive grants, earmarks are a welcome bonanza. To taxpayers and advocates of spending restraint, transparent government and federalism, they’re woefully inefficient and pit parochial interests against the national interest.

Let’s look at the debate from the perspective of an appropriations lobbyist, to whom all federal spending is good federal spending:

The most democratic way to distribute these federal dollars is to spread funding across to numerous, meritorious local government projects rather than to concentrate resources to a select few.

Ah, democracy. The implication is that if someone is against earmarking, they must be some sort of dictator‐​loving democracy hater. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigative piece in March showing that the top recipient of educational earmarks for research in FY 2008 was Mississippi State University (Number two? The University of Mississippi). The Bulldogs are not known for a world‐​class research program, but they happen to have influential representatives and senators on the appropriations committees to steer funds their way. Never mind that educational earmarks receive little to no scrutiny to determine merit by scientists or that millions of dollars winds up at universities with no graduate or research programs in the research areas for which they receive funds. That’s earmark “democracy” in action.

The paper also analyzes the appropriations process during FY 2006 (when Congress used earmarks) and FY 2007 (when Congress did not use earmarks because the appropriations process fell apart and Congress fell back on a series of continuing resolutions that just increased spending across the board).

Generally speaking, federal agencies awarded substantially fewer grants when compared to when Congress earmarked these funds. A few local governments did better; the vast majority did not.

There’s a debate over whether earmarks increase overall spending or if they only divert it. Assuming that overall spending doesn’t change in a given year, earmarks just redirect spending to narrow interests; removing earmarks does not decrease spending. However, the paper seems to argue spending was reduced without considering the money was likely spent on other priorities.

In the bizarro lobbying world, the federal government spending less money on special interest projects is automatically a bad thing. To taxpayers, the notion that the government isn’t indiscriminately spending money because a representative or senator inserts an earmark in an appropriations bill is usually a good thing.

Communities across the nationwide are faced with increased traffic congestion and transportation needs. These local governments must address broken sidewalks, antiquated infrastructure, congested roads, and inadequate bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Setting aside this excerpt’s grammar issues, it’s comically ludicrous to suggest that the federal government needs to bail out local governments so that they can fix broken sidewalks and bike trails. Local governments are more accountable to residents’ spending wants and needs. It’s also more efficient to tax local and state residents to provide local and state infrastructure and services instead of routing the money through the maze of federal bureaucracy.

Reasonable people can disagree about the solution to the earmark problem. An effective argument for appropriators is that until the system is reformed, it’s their duty to get as much money for their district as possible — even if it’s wasteful and inefficient. This anonymous paper, though, is a silly defense of the system. It’s understandable why the author wants to remain anonymous.