The Earmark That Wasn't

The Earmark That Wasn't

There are a lot of reasons to be upset about the latest bipartisan Congressional responsibility punt – i.e., the CR and debt limit deal. 

For starters, it is beyond unfortunate that the Senate’s short-term agreement does not include any of the sensible reforms proposed by Republicans – such as a one-year delay of Obamacare or the individual mandate and the provision under which Members of Congress and senior government officials would be subject to the same law they are forcing on the rest of America. The fact that individuals are being mandated to live with Obamacare, while Congress is exempt from the law, is not fair and probably not legal. There are countries on this planet that pass laws that apply only to the people and not to the government – like Russia, North Korea, and Iran – and now the United States.

The shortcomings in this agreement are due to the abdication of leadership on the part of the President and Senate Democrats, and fiscal conservatives have no reason to cheer. The debt is now free just to keep growing and growing.

However, one provision in the bill that has received extra scrutiny is the so-called “Kentucky Kickback.” Given the catchy name, this is understandable. Because our advocacy group, Ending Spending – which was originally named “Taxpayers Against Earmarks” – had worked so hard to convince the House and Senate to pass the earmark moratorium in 2010, I was especially dismayed by the news.

The victory over earmarks was more important than people realized at the time. In fact, just yesterday on Morning Joe, liberal reporter Al Hunt argued that the reason we were in the shutdown mess this month was because of the earmark ban. Hunt longed for the days in the 1990s when leadership would just hand out “free bridges” in exchange for a budget agreement.

Al Hunt is both right and wrong. He’s right – because of the earmark ban, it is more difficult to pass legislation that does not enjoy broad public support. But that’s a good thing. Earmarks were the gasoline on the fire of the growth in government, and the earmark ban makes it harder to waste taxpayer dollars.

So I decided to look into this business about a possible earmark for Kentucky in the CR – called the Olmsted Lock and Dam project, which is being administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The provision in question, inserted by Senators Feinstein and Alexander, increased the budget authorization up to $2.9 billion – meaning the provision did not actually appropriate any money, it just increased the existing budget authority.

Like other anti-earmark groups, we evaluate appropriations earmarks based on a number of different factors, including:

  • Was the project requested by the Administration? If it was requested, does the funding greatly exceed the original budget request?

  • Was the project requested by only one or a few Members or Senators?

  • Was the project the subject of Congressional hearings, review and authorization?

  • Does the project serve only a local or special interest?

  • Was the funding the subject of a government contracts award competition?

Applying these criteria, it is not even a close call – the Olmsted project was not an earmark, an opinion shared by the respected independent group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

For starters, the provision was specifically requested by the Obama Administration. Second, the provision in the bill does NOT appropriate money – but rather is an authorization. This is precisely what anti-earmark advocates want to happen. Any actual dollars expended will have to be appropriated at a later date. Moreover, it has been the subject of other Congressional action. Increased budget authority for the Olmsted project was included in the Water Resources Development Act – which has passed the Senate and passed in committee in the House. Finally, as discussed above, while there certainly will be benefits for Kentucky, completion of the new locks system clearly has benefits for the larger Ohio-Mississippi River area and the nation as a whole.

These technical distinctions about what is an earmark, however, don’t solve the question of whether the project is wasteful parochial pork.

The Olmsted project is a massive public works project that has been under construction for several years and is only halfway to completion. As with most government programs, it is costing way more than originally estimated – hence the need for Congressional action to increase the amount permitted to be spent on the project. The locks are located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the town of Olmsted, Illinois, and the new dam and locks will help increase the speed and amount of commercial traffic on the busy rivers.

The conclusion that the Olmsted project is not an earmark and appears worthy of funding does not mean that Ending Spending endorses the practice of putting extraneous provisions in continuing resolutions – we don’t. CRs should be as narrow and possible. For that matter, we don’t even like CRs to begin with. That the Olmsted project was included in the CR is further evidence that Congress is dysfunctional and we need to return to regular order where legislation is prepared and passed in a timely fashion. As usual, the process that led to this CR was terrible, and no one should be surprised at the result.

Brian Baker is the President of Ending Spending.


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