Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 26, 2009


The term earmark has been used since the 16th century for identification marks applied to an animal's ear. In the whole history of agriculture earmarks there has never been one that cost, say, $150 million.

In politics and finance, the term seems to have used first as a verb - "we will earmark $XX for this purpose" - and only more recently as a noun. The term that was far more often used was pork. We suspect, but can't prove, that the pig industry convinced politicians to stop using that word.

Obama has declared himself a foe of earmarks. But you can't prove it by, say, the stimulus package, which was full of them.

Further, CQ reports that "The president, vice president, the White House chief of staff and the four Cabinet secretaries who were in Congress last year show up in the records of the House and Senate Appropriations committees as the sponsors or cosponsors of hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects in the $410 billion spending bill.

"Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. , who was a senator from Delaware, . . . has his name is attached to $94.9 million in earmarks.

"Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was a senator at the time, sponsored or cosponsored even more in special line items for favored projects. His total, including earmarks he supported as a secondary sponsor, was $227.4 million. . .

"Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton , Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood , Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel also were members of the last Congress, and each of their names is associated with at least one earmark . . .

"A Republican aide was happy to point out dozens of earmarks for top administration officials. CQ found more, including the name Obama on page 397 of a 427-page explanatory statement appended to the section of dealing with education money."

And it's a very bipartisan activity. As Time notes, Republicans account for 40% of the earmark requests in the budget.

There is further hypocrisy in the assumption that not having Congress specify earmarks will do away with them. For example the conference report on high speed rail notes that "The conferees have provided the [Transportation] Secretary flexibility in allocating resources between the programs to advance the goal of deploying intercity high speed rail systems in the United States." Which sounds noble, until you realize that the power of earmarking has merely been transferred from the highly visible Congress to a far less visible Secretary of Transportation.

Finally, the idea that earmarks are universally bad is ridiculous. Many excellent programs - including those involving support of community, health, ecology, education, history and the arts - exist because some member of Congress cared enough about them.

In the end, the war on earmarks is one more effort to reduce the power of the Congress and increase that of the executive branch. The media and public shouldn't play along with this game.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen. And I'm a hardcore fiscal conservative.

Earmarks account for, what, 1% of discretionary spending? And the money's going to get spent anyway; better by the legislature than by the executive.

February 26, 2009 2:27 PM  

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