Tea party groups have grabbed Congress by the neck in a misguided movement to ban spending items in the form of lawmakers’ earmarks, ironically giving more power to big government’s executive branch. Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye may need to find other ways to bring welcome chunks of federal spending to Hawaii.
Earmarks seem to have become the devilish symbol of government waste, even though they account for little more than three-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending. Under the ban, ways of spending that individual members of Congress know would be most useful in their states or districts would be left to far-away bureaucrats to decide.
Inouye told reporters last week that "the people of Hawaii didn’t elect me to be a rubber stamp for any executive," The Wall Street Journal reported. Even if all earmark requests were "wiped out," Inouye said, the federal deficit would be hardly reduced.
Opponents of earmarks depict them as a sneaky assertion of pork into the federal budget. However, earmarks, which account for $15.9 billion, are put forward openly. They are required to be posted on the Web, and lawmakers must certify that they have no financial interest in those they present. Also, in transparency reform done just last year, a congressperson’s earmark request must be posted on his or her website explaining its purpose and value.
Inouye, Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, brought $388 million to Hawaii through earmarks, second in fiscal 2010 only to the $490 million that Sen. Thad Cochrane, the panel’s top Republican, brought home to Mississippi. Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie was fourth highest in the House in obtaining earmarks when he was a congressman. Hawaii’s 183 earmarks were valued at $412 million during the fiscal year.
Inouye warns that the East-West Center "will have to work elsewhere for the resources it needs," and nearly all the financial aid to native Hawaiians for health, education and welfare and cultural problems will disappear. Also endangered are planned earmarks of $26.4 million for a subsidiary of Navatek to build a naval vessel and $25 million for improvement of health care for naval families in Hawaii.
Earmarks spent in Hawaii in recent years have included $500,000 to expand the Honolulu Police Department, more than $15 million for Honolulu’s rail transit and $5.5 million to begin cleaning up World War II chemical munitions dumped off Oahu and other islands — all classified as "pork" by the Citizens Against Government Waste. That is the same group that guffaws every year about money earmarked to control and interdict brown tree snakes, which have devastated parts of Guam and threaten Hawaii.
Those are not examples of wasteful spending, as earmark opponents suggest, but federal dollars aimed by members of Congress in ways that they know to best. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has defended earmarks in the past and recently singled out two earmark projects that he said were extremely important to his home state of Kentucky. But McConnell, pressured by tea partyers, now is joining House GOP leaders in calling for an earmark "moratorium."
Those lawmakers who have used earmarks effectively to provide for needs in states they know best must, increasingly, need to justify the worthiness of such expenditures. But the shrill cry to ban earmarks is a red herring; instead, earmarks need to be budgeted in a prudent, transparent way to earn back the public’s trust.