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A dubious alternative to earmarks


Hawaii’s federal gravy train appears to have come to a screeching halt with the stripping of earmarks from a major spending bill enacted in this month’s lame duck session of Congress. However, members of Congress always have found ways to bring federal dollars to their districts, and Hawaii’s delegation should look for alternative tracks to make the deliveries.

Before being stripped under tea party pressure, the $1.3 trillion spending bill included 6,700 earmarks that would have cost $8 billion. Of those, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was able as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to include 141 earmarks for Hawaii worth $321 million.

Inouye has said that was much less than previous inserts and they were more visible than ever because of congressional reforms. He has rightly pointed out that earmarks account for less than 1 percent of discretionary federal spending.

The trimming of the spending law could endanger 35 of 49 positions in the Hawaii National Guard, "if," as Lt. Col. Anthony worries, "there’s no other way of securing federal funding." Also in danger are nearly $3.8 million that Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka provided for Hawaiian education programs and $5.7 million earmarked by Akaka to restore a historic seaplane hanger at Midway Island.

However, where there’s a will to find ways to steer federal money to the islands, there’s a way, a methodology that David E. Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste likens to a game of "Whack-a-Mole."

"When one door closes, there is always two or three more that they can go through," Willliams remarked to The New York Times.

The alternatives are described as soft earmarks, specifically lettermarks and phonemarks.

For example, Sen. Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., who won President Barack Obama’s Senate seat, lambasted "Speaker Pelosi’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan" while in the House. Nonetheless, he sent a letter to the Department of Education asking for the release of money to a school district in Illinois. The school district later received more than $1 million in stimulus money.

Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama issued executive orders instructing agencies not to finance projects based on communications from Congress. However, legislators are not shy about hinting to federal agencies by both letter and phone where money should be directed. Engaging in such exchanges can qualify as constituent service by members of Congress. Agencies are not bound by such suggestions, and as Inouye points out, "The people of Hawaii didn’t elect me to be a rubber stamp for any executive."

Ironically, taxpayers will find it more difficult to monitor soft earmarks. In response to allegations of backroom dealmaking, Congress members now are required to list on their websites the earmarks they’ve obtained. No such open-government policy exists for lettermarks and phonemarks, which fall outside the regular legislative process. If this is how Congress chooses to conduct the people’s business, then rule changes are needed to ensure that these soft earmark requests are done in the full light of public disclosure.

Inouye is correct in saying that Hawaii’s delegation knows more than inside-the-beltway bureaucrats about how federal spending can be most effective in Hawaii. Indeed, Hawaii’s senior senator has a right — nay, an obligation — to guide federal officials who appear before his committee in making the best use of our dollars.


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