POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 8, 2011
WASHINGTON >> Gone for now are the likes of the taxpayer-financed teapot museum, or studies on the mating habits of crabs.
But also shelved are a project to help consolidate information about arrests in Brazos County, Texas, and staffing for two new shelters for abused women and children in Salt Lake City. A rural Wisconsin county will not be able to upgrade its communication system, and a road in Kentucky will not be widened next year.
Across the country, local governments, nonprofit groups and scores of farmers, to name but a few, are waking up to the fact that when Congress stamped out earmarks last week, it was talking about their projects, too.
Tensions are particularly acute in districts where new conservative lawmakers, many of whom criticized throughout their campaigns the practice of quietly inserting earmarks into spending bills, are coming face to face with local governments and interest groups who were counting on federal dollars to help shore up their own collapsing budgets.
The issue is hardly limited to Republican districts. Democrats, led by President Barack Obama — who recently said earmarks were a bad thing — also agreed to give up the practice. Last week, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has long cherished earmarks, announced they would be banned from this year’s appropriations bills. But he was not happy about it.
“The reality,” Inouye said, “is that critical needs in communities throughout the country will be neglected: roads and bridges in disrepair, job training programs shuttered, and vital resources for national defense and law enforcement cut off, to name just a few.”
Many citizens, even those who sympathize with cuts in spending, insist that not all pork is cured with the same untoward salt.
“I do agree we have to cut from somewhere,” said Steve Tribble, the county judge executive of Christian County in Kentucky, where a planned road project is now imperiled. “I am against some earmarks. Not the good ones. I can promise you this is not a road to nowhere.”
In Burnett County in Wisconsin, the loss of a $1 million federal earmark to help pay for modernizing its communication system could result in a property tax increase, said the county administrator, Candace Fitzgerald.
“This is very, very expensive,” Fitzgerald said, explaining that the area’s rugged terrain made it hard to erect the equipment needed for the upgrades, which she said were required by the federal government. “It’s going to kill that little tax base up there,” she said of her county’s most far-flung corner.
Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., who devoted part of his 2010 campaign to decrying the penchant of his predecessor, David R. Obey — a Democrat who retired after four decades in Congress — for securing earmarks, said he traveled to his district last week to gently explain to local governments that times had changed.
“I am being honest with people,” Duffy said in a telephone interview. “I draw them a pie chart.”
But even Duffy said he had come to see that not every earmark was of the much-maligned teapot museum quality, and that he would help his constituents “work through the grant process” to secure needed financing in other ways.
But there’s the rub. With Obama proposing a five-year freeze on domestic spending, and the Republican-controlled House vowing to cut spending in federal agencies by hundreds of millions of dollars, it is almost certain that every agency will have far less money to spend on thousands of legitimate projects that were approved after extensive review. Simply put, without earmarks to turn to, far more applicants will be scrambling for a smaller pot of grant money.
The result? Scores of lawmakers are going to find themselves explaining to the people back home why their bridges will not be finished, their rape-victim programs canceled before they started, their federal requirements ignored.
Spending for earmarks accounts for less than half of 1 percent of total federal spending, but it can be crucial chunks of change for localities. The practice has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as some lawmakers have been prolific users of earmarks while others, supported by some government watchdog groups, have criticized them as too lightly scrutinized engines of corruption that add needlessly to government spending. There were about $8 billion in earmark requestsin the 2011 ominbus spending bill that failed to get through the last Congress.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has made earmarks one of his signature targets, sends Twitter messages about the ones he finds most offensive.
“$1,000,000 for improvements to a pond in Maplewood, MN — those are some lucky frogs,” read one.
The issue gained political potency with the Republicans’ ascent in the House, led by its earmark-despising new speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and followed by Obama’s comments and pressure from opponents in both parties that became too great to ignore.
Many new lawmakers say localities, not federal taxpayers, should pay for new bike paths, local cultural organizations and other projects that benefit only their community. But some earmarks are for projects that have broader impact, like national parks, large research centers on university campuses or military installations.
For instance, in South Dakota, roughly $12 million had been set aside to modernize a training center at Ellsworth Air Force base.
“Currently training requirements are fulfilled in a 58- year-old facility that has reached the end of its lifecycle and is costly to maintain,” an Air Force spokeswoman, Elizabeth Gosselin, said.
Others are projects that are potentially attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike. In the Texas district recently won by Rep. Bill Flores, a Republican, a $300,000 program that would serve law enforcement agencies across Brazos County, and $2.3 million for a research center at Baylor University, among the county’s largest employers, are now left hanging.
“We have hosted Congressman Flores on our campus so he could learn about our campus,” said Tommye Lou Davis, the university’s vice president of constituent engagement. “I suspect it will take Congressman Flores a while to get a lay of the land, but he is definitely concerned with representing us well.
In an e-mail, Flores said he was aware of the earmarks requested in the last Congress for Baylor and Brazos County.
“In keeping with my promises,” he added, “I will fully support the earmark moratorium to ensure that we focus on balancing the budget and creating a more transparent and accountable process for necessary spending.”
Outside of the earmark process, however, it is difficult for freshman lawmakers to exert any influence over federal agencies to direct money to particular projects. Under the new ban, some projects will no doubt still get federal money. Others will be shelved, or in the case of nonprofits, receive more private financing. Some officials have no idea what they are going to do.
“It’s a good question,” said Anne Burkholder, chief executive of the YWCA in Salt Lake City, which planned to use its $485,000 earmark to hire staff members for two new shelters for women and children until more private money came through; for now it is using volunteers.
“We’re trying to determine right now how to close that gap,” Burkholder said.