Leaders mixed on congressionally directed spending.
WASHINGTON — In the ongoing fight over federal spending, nothing has taken more heat — and more greatly faces the long-term prospect of extinction — than the earmark.
Among all states, Ohio once reigned as among the top recipients of such funds. In fiscal year 2009, Ohio was one of the biggest beneficiaries of congressionally directed spending, receiving more than $345 million in earmarks. The state was the 10th largest recipient of earmarks in the nation that year. That year, now-retired Reps. David Hobson, R-Springfield, and Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, served as subcommittee chairmen for the House Appropriations Committee.
Money funded everything from a dining facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to new buses for the Central Ohio Transit Authority to after-school programs for at-risk students in Cleveland.
This year, both the House and Senate have declared a moratorium on earmarks, meaning if a spending measure isn’t in President Obama’s budget, it’ll take something above a miracle for it to pass Congress.
The appropriations committees, once the legislative equivalent of Santa Claus, are now more likely to be cast in the role of the Grinch — cutting funds rather than doling them out.
Although they account for less than one percent of federal discretionary spending, to critics, earmarks are “pork” — projects lawmakers used to “bring home the bacon” to their supporters. High-profile and controversial earmarks — think “the Bridge to Nowhere” — have further sullied their reputation.
But to those who received the funds, the perspective is wildly different.
They say these funds, often matched by local monies, help with economic development and quality of
life. Many times, they say, a quick shot of federal dollars was the impetus to make long-term plans a reality.
In federal spending year 2009, the National Aviation Heritage Foundation received a $95,000 earmark for a parachute museum – part of a national park complex devoted to aviation history at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center.
Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the Dayton-based National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said the $95,000 was a small portion of funding that also included local, state, and private sources.
The money helped reinvigorate a once-deteriorating part of town. Sculimbrene said he doubts that the administration would’ve known enough about the region to realize the multiple ways the funding would benefit the region.
But Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, who requested the earmark, knew the district, and knew the benefits, he said.
“I don’t see the earmark process as being something anti-American or anti-Constitutional. It’s quite the opposite,” Sculimbrene said.
Earmarks give taxpayers some say in how their federal tax dollars are used, he said.
“Like everything in life, they’re not perfect,” he said. “But just because they’re not perfect doesn’t mean they’re not good.”
Whether the moratorium is a temporary one or permanent remains to be seen.
Critics of earmarks say the current moratorium won’t stop lawmakers who want to push pet projects. In particular, their alarm bells went off earlier this year when the House passed the National Defense Authorization Bill, an authorizing bill that included a new “Mission Force Enhancement Transfer Fund.” The fund, they say, was a “slush fund,” that lawmakers could use to direct toward their pet projects.
“It’s a perfect scam,” said Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group critical of earmarks.
Paige and other watchdogs actually concede that some of the projects funded have value. They support a competitive system where funds are allocated based on their merit — not based on whether the lawmaker pushing for the funds happens to have more political power.
“Just like nature, politics abhors a vacuum,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “There are going to be ways to get around the system.”
Some say that stopping earmarks altogether may actually be counterproductive.
Michael Gessel, vice president of federal affairs for the Dayton Development Coalition, said an earmark moratorium “gives the community less control over federal funding.”
“It makes it more difficult for a community to say, ‘I want my federal dollars to go to XYZ, and I will, working through my congressional delegation, get that money back,” he said. “Earmarks are a lever that Congress and hence, the American people, use to influence and control government spending.”
In fiscal year 2009, Hobson alone brought 38 earmarks totalling $60.7 million to the state of Ohio, according to a database by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Combined with other lawmakers, he brought in 55 earmarks totaling $88 million that year.
Now he’s quick to acknowledge “it can never go back to what it was before.”
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is get this country back on a sound financial basis. Then we can worry about earmarks.”