Making a Case for Congressional Earmarks

In an interesting article for Defense News last week, Kate Brannen rightly points out, that although earmarks are becoming more difficult to come across, they’re by no means extinct.

Affectionately known as “pork,” earmarks are used by a lawmaker to steer appropriations directly into projects that he or she finds particularly important. The funds come directly from a certain committee’s budget, and can be used for just about anything, from university research to military technology.

Pork spending has gotten something of a bad rap over the past few years, with the process becoming synonymous with government waste. This reputation is not completely without merit. But by and large the earmark process is not an evil one; it allows elected representatives to prioritize the needs of their district and appropriate accordingly.

In fact, as Melissa Harris-Perry of The Nation observes, “The system (of governing) is not made better by denying the reality of local interests, just to claim to be doing everything in the national interest. We are a country of states, we are states of cities … Each of us,each of our communities,makes up the big picture. Local spending projects (earmarks) are just part of that process.”

The earmark process has become something of a political football recently, with each party attempting to outdo the other in their anti-pork vitriol. (I find this somewhat perplexing considering that earmarks make up less than one percent of the U.S. budget.) This culminated with last year’s “earmark moratorium,” a toothless effort by both Houses to end the practice.

But as Defense News notes, Washington’s newfound kosher lifestyle might not be as pork-free as lawmakers would have you believe. While spending on pet-projects has certainly decreased (down from $16.6 billion in 2010 to just $3.3 billion in 2012), those in the know are still getting what they want — even if they have to try a little harder.

The real losers in this whole debate have been the companies that rely on the government for their revenue, yet can’t afford the armies of lobbyists needed to fight for the few remaining earmark dollars.

Many of these businesses count on earmarks to fund their research and development (which in some industries can be prohibitively expensive) and for large infrastructure projects (roads to new factories, etc.). However, as the money dries up, so will the ability of these organizations to continually innovate.

While there are certainly no short-cuts through this process, those who benefit from earmarks must start defending themselves. As unpopular as pork spending may be right now, much of this public sentiment is fluid, being based on half-truths and emotional rhetoric. For every earmarked boondoggle, there are probably 100 legitimate projects.

For instance, the majority of Americans would have little idea that a good number of the public works programs in their state are financed by so-called pork spending. The long-awaited Second Avenue Subway line? Those Long Island Railroad upgrades? New Yorkers can thank Senator Schumer and his earmarking efforts for those.

And in California, Sens. Boxer and Feinstein have teamed up on nearly $8.8 billion in earmarks since 2008. And despite what most believe this wasn’t directed toward defense contractors or Solyndra, but the bridges, dams and traffic lights that Californians use daily.

I could go on, but I won’t. The point I’m making is that earmarks needn’t be a shadowy, back room occurrence that companies are embarrassed to talk about. In fact the opposite needs to be true if we’re to save the process. Shine the light on this type of spending, prove its utility and then oversee its actual implementation.

When looking for pork, businesses should assure their Representative that he or she would not be shamed by how it’s spent; offer an oversight program and regular updates of how the project is progressing. And — now this might sound self-serving — publicize the Representative’s involvement and how important your initiative is to the community. If you’re building a factory, stress the jobs that it will create. If you’re researching cancer treatments — say so!

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