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An earmark by any other name is a deal

Current talk about restoring the practice of Congressional earmarks shows once again that politics makes strange bedfellows. In a democracy, it was always meant to.

Here is The Day, champion of transparency in government, responsible spending and accountability of elected officials, agreeing with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents Connecticut's Third Congressional District and now chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, that it's a good idea to revive the practice of allowing members of Congress to "earmark" pet projects in their districts.

DeLauro and fellow Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, her counterpart on the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced this week that they would back the return of a new version of earmarks. The old name, formally, was "member-directed legislation." The new name is to be "community-focused grants." Either way, they're earmarks, to be sure. No one is fooled by the cosmetics.

"Earmark" is the nickname for a project inserted into a spending bill by a member of Congress, which will specifically benefit the district that elected him or her. It carries a whiff of smoke-filled room and a visual of making laws the same way as sausages. Indeed, the money appropriated through an earmark is commonly referred to as pork.

Two months ago, when we first wrote in favor of restoring earmarks to the federal budgeting process, commenters on couldn't believe what they read. How could earmarks, mostly known for sporadic outrages such as the Bridge to Nowhere, ever be excused, let alone promoted as good for governing?

The answers may be suprising but they are not complicated. In the 10 years since House Speaker John Boehner led the move to eliminate them, it has become clear that earmarks had their place. They left several gaps when they disappeared.

  • Earmarks are currency for deal-making — and we keep saying we want bipartisan compromise.
  • As a cost savings they never amounted to much more than one percent of the federal budget —  tiny when compared to large-scale industry subsidies and tax reductions for the wealthiest. So the argument that they increase spending needs to be made in context.
  • Banning earmarks did not totally accomplish the objective of abolishing pork from the spending budget. Not calling them earmarks did not really stop the practice. There are work-arounds such as writing the language of a proposed appropriation so that it fits only a particular unnamed recipient, not visibly linked to any one congressional district.
  • Without earmarks, who gets the credit or blame for approving a project as useful or silly? Voters should know not only who is getting the pork but who arranged for it. Since the official abolition of earmarks, the announcement of special projects identified the largesse as coming not from the people who voted for the appropriation but the person who signed the bill: the president. That's too narrow, and it doesn't give Congress its due, whether positive or negative.

It may be surprising to know that one of the sources for the proposed change is the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Earmarks, at first glance, seem to hearken back to the days of the good ole boys. The committee does not view it that way.

The members recently issued their final report after working during the 116th Congress to address issues of representation, accessibility and a host of other reforms. The most fundamental is to "reclaim Congress' Article One powers." Essentially, they found that for several decades the executive branch has expanded its powers at the expense of Congress' constitutional role. Specifically, "the executive branch has taken control of the purse strings, allocating funding for state and local projects and programs without congressional appropriations or approval."

Modernization, in the eyes of the bipartisan committee, means strengthening the role of Congress in the overall balance of powers by repossessing control of those purse strings.

There is nothing glorious or particularly patriotic about a deal-making process named after the clipping of pigs' ears in a way that identified who owned the future pork on the hoof. The name "earmarks" says it all, and in service of transparency DeLauro and her allies should own it, not try to recast it. It is what it is.

In a perfect world, projects would get funded on their merits alone. Politics is an imperfect world. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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