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The Real Value of Earmarks - From a Former Appropriator


Here we go again! A new Congress is taking shape and the debate about earmarks springs anew. Earmarks? For those new to Washington perhaps in the last 10 years, earmarks are not those yellow plastic discs attached to a cow’s ear that you see when you take a ride through the countryside. No, in DC an earmark is a spending item for a specific project advocated for by a specific legislator. For example; the Mississippi River floods every 5-10 years in certain sections. People, often poor people who live in lowlands along the River because it is less desirable, lose their homes and valuables. Something should be done to help but nothing happens for years

A Member of Congress approaches the Appropriations Committee and says “ I can get X number of dollars from the state of Minnesota and X amount from the city and we will build new housing for these poor folks on high ground. We need X number of dollars from the federal government to make it work. The lowland can then be made available as a park so that everyone can access the river when it as at normal levels. The federal “earmark” makes a solution possible and can leverage $5 or $10 for every federal dollar spent. Everybody wins. The taxpayer saves millions on flood insurance and emergency response and the people have a great view of the river from a safe distance in their homes on the hill. We actually did this and solved a problem which had lingered for decades.


About 10 years ago Congress ended this practice even though the Constitution, Article One, gives this specific power to the legislature. Some complained it wasn’t fair, it was excessive or it was corrupt.

These earmarks make up far less than 1% of the federal budget and I could argue they are the most effective use of federal funds because the local representative has the local knowledge and provides the oversight to solve the problem. Most spending decisions are made according to formulas established by federal officials in Washington who know nothing of that Minnesota town. The formulas benefit big cities which already have unlimited wealth and community assets. Ask one of your neighbors what the federal government has done for them lately and see what answer you get. This is a way to directly impact positively your community’s quality of life. There is a whole industry in Washington protecting you from so called wasteful spending. Good government groups they are called. They have their own agenda. But take it from a guy who spent 20 years in the Congress with the primary goal of helping his community through a difficult economic period. Congressionally directed spending (earmarks) is the most efficient way to do problem solving at the local level with federal assistance. What you will hear from the conservative government watchdogs is that this is a budget buster. I mentioned the actual impact on federal spending above (a fraction of one percent) but even more persuasive is the fact that the only time we have balanced the federal budget in 60 years was when the Congress was utilizing this practice. These funds are effective, efficient and a wise use that people see the benefit of back home. The liberal or progressive watchdogs warn of corruption. In fact, back in the early 2000s a couple of House Members went to jail for abuse of federal funds. This is exactly what should happen. They broke the law and were punished and it served as a warning to others who might have a similar notion. There are a lot of protections in place and others should be considered. The above mentioned Members directed federal funds to for profit businesses. This would no longer be allowed. The process should be transparent. There should be oversight. All Members districts should benefit and resources need to be allocated evenly and according to need. I believe that congressionally directed spending will be welcomed back in the new Congress. The existing rules allow it and most Members support it. Majority Leader Hoyer has said as much. Both Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi are former members of the House Appropriations Committee and know that giving Members an opportunity to help their home constituencies, on a bi-partisan basis will build comity and cooperation between the political parties. We used to pass Appropriations bills with bi-partisan votes of 300+ house Members voting for them. We could use a little bridge building in Congress, literally and figuratively, don’t you think?

Jim Walsh, Government Affairs Counselor, K&L Gates LLP Member of Congress 1989-2009 Member House Appropriations Committee 1993-2009

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