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Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

WRDA: Commonsense Earmarking

In Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, Politics, Water Resources on December 20, 2010 at 8:01 pm

A restaurant is moving into our nearby Del Ray Alexandria neighborhood (and not nearly soon enough, I might add).  It is unabashedly called Pork Barrel BBQ.

The name–chosen by a  couple of former Senate staffers now opening their first restaurant–has plenty of context in the Washington area where “pork barrel” is a mud that gets slung by persons of all partisan and ideological stripes  deservedly or not.  The observation goes…”One man’s pork barrel is another man’s needed project” (or favorite eatery, as the case may be).

But let’s reject the term for such time as it takes to rationally debate the issue of earmarking.

The previous post on this blog discusses how a broad brush is being used in the “earmark” debate in Congress where schizophrenia has been in great evidence as party members opine on the subject of how earmarking should be treated by House and Senate rules starting next year.

You can tell that rhetoric and ideology are getting their way when House GOP leadership is telling the rank and file to cut their griping and just deal with it.  It being a prohibition on all earmarking (writ broad).

The thinking person should have problems with that.  Putting aside an obvious constitutional argument, let’s consider how not all project types are alike.  And to keep this short, let’s stipulate that while some earmarks are  little more than grand ideas others have been subjected to considerable analysis.  Put water resource projects in the latter category.

Federal water projects go back to 1824 when Congress told the US Army Corps of Engineers to make rivers safe for navigation.  Today the Corps’ civil works mission includes navigation (the Federal system of coastal and inland channels), protection against floods and shore erosion, and other project types.  Today projects are put through  an extensive and expensive series of wringers: environmental, engineering and economic analysis, EISs, White House sign-offs, reports to Congress, contracts between local project sponsors and the Federal government (covering sharing of costs, provision of lands, etc.), congressional authorization of projects that satisfy the various tests (see WRDA), and  subsequent funding decisions by Congress.  Oh, and there’s the public input opportunities along the way as well as more recent provisions for “peer” review of Corps feasibility studies.

As Amy Larson of the National Waterways Conference put it in her letter to Republican leaders, “water resources projects are scrutinized, arguably, to a greater extent than any other capital investment program in the government…”

In his letter of November 29, 2010, Kurt Nagle of the American Association of Port Authorities told the leaders “it is vital to find a solution that provides a process that enables investments in needed improvements in transportation infrastructure to move forward in a non-earmark environment, especially new-start construction projects.”

Yes, you are bound to find “pork” by someone’s definition even among scrutinized water resources projects but that can be managed through oversight by appropriators.  But if the leadership is not taking the time to understand differences among project types, the high hurdles that navigation projects must overcome to qualify for authorization and funding, or the simple fact that most of the nation’s navigation system consists of FEDERAL channels that Congress is obliged to maintain and improve in the national interest, then they appear to be engaging in little more than indiscriminate mud slinging.   Pbea

 

Congress Should Ban/Allow Earmarking

In Federal Government, Politics, Water Resources on December 17, 2010 at 1:28 am

Step right up to the Washington Sideshow! See the lobbyist do strange things.

Go ahead.  Don’t be afraid.  Ask me about earmarking.  Then watch my head spin, my eyes bulge, and listen as I speak in exasperations, convolutions and contradictions.

Outside the Beltway earmarking might be a specialty of tattoo artists.  Inside the Beltway, and in the public sector among countless State and local officials–and even in the private sector–earmarking is about addressing solving problems and getting business done.  It is what you ask of your Senator or Member for your town or company or non-profit.

Earmarking, rarely adequately-explained in the media, is usually defined as bacon-brought-home.  The water supply project.  The library addition.  The in-the-bag contract with the Army.  The jet fighter the Air Force doesn’t want but your constituents want to build.  The genome research grant.  The road extension.

The claim is that earmarking costs money that otherwise would not be spent and, in any event, should not be spent in this time of record deficits.  Others respond that it represents “only” less than 1 percent of the cost of a major funding bill.

Defenders of earmarking reach for the Constitutional argument: Congress and Congress alone was given responsibility for making funding decisions.

Besides, goes the insulting tag line, why should Congress defer to “faceless,” “unelected” “bureaucrats” to decide what projects to fund or grants to award?

As a practice congressional earmarking grew significantly over the past 10 or so years.  Today thousands of earmarks populate annual appropriations.  Over 6,000  projects were in the last enacted surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU.  (The name that includes the then committee chairman’s wife’s name is itself an earmark.)

Recent congresses have adopted ever tighter rules to improve transparency and to formalize making earmark requests.  However in this post-election period we see earmark critics empowered to the point of sending once-proud practitioners to the public confessional from which they emerge chastened and converted to the cause.

The Washington Sideshow can be entertaining.  Righteous conservatives decry earmarking and then do an about-face as if it the real implications of an earmark ban on their ability to help their districts suddenly dawn on them.  (Doh!  I need that road project!)

Okay, enough about Congress.  What about your head spinning?

Okay. Here goes. Earmarking has gotten out of hand.  It’s the self righteous indignation about earmarking that has gotten out of hand. It used to be about bringing home the pork; today the farmyard is emptied of its livestock.  But there is an unreasonable demand for purity by tea party adherents and Republican leadership. Yes, but there definitely are bad earmarks and that’s got to stop.  But there is nothing bad about helping your district get funds for needed sewer lines. Something needs to be done.  Yes, something needs to be done.

Okay, okay.  So your head can spin.  What does this have to do with the MTS?

You will have to read the next post.  Here’s a clue…WRDA.    Pbea

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