GOP Earmark Ban Shifts Clout
From The Wall Street Journal:
With deep-draft cargo ships set to steam through a widened Panama Canal in 2014, South Carolina Rep. Henry Brown tucked $400,000 of federal money into a House spending bill to deepen the Port of Charleston so it could accommodate the bigger ships.
Next year, Charleston will have no one to press the case. That could mean losing shipping business to deepwater ports along the Eastern seaboard.
Congressional Republicans decided this week to swear off such "earmark" spending for their districts and states—effectively eliminating it altogether given the GOP's expanded numbers in both chambers. That means the Obama administration will have sole discretion over which ports to deepen, waterways to dredge and dams to build, among other things.
"We're going to be in a position where we can implement decisions really based on highest priorities," said Rob Nabors, acting deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Lawmakers may still say how money is budgeted generally for activities such as dredging, but by banning earmarks—specific projects funded as a result of lawmakers' requests—they won't be able to direct cash to individual districts or states. And the president will have more power to eliminate or trim programs that have resisted cuts for years, White House and congressional officials say.
By some estimates, eliminating earmarks could save $15 billion a year, but that assumes recipient programs would be eliminated completely, something no one in government believes. Earmark decisions are more about control than money.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), who has crusaded for an earmarks ban for years, favors the new rules despite the power shift. He calls earmarks "the currency of corruption" on Capitol Hill because some lawmakers have traded them for campaign contributions from lobbyists.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the ban would lead to more horse-trading, with the president holding a powerful hand. "You want money for that port—vote for START," he said, referring to a nuclear-arms treaty President Barack Obama wants the Senate to ratify. "Every administration is going to use this power, and they'd be crazy not to."
Although earmarks are a small part of the budget, they dominate some aspects of spending. The Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and the Defense Department's research, development and testing operations are predominantly funded by congressional and presidential earmarks, as are some other areas of the federal bureaucracy.
For most of the federal government, spending is allocated by formulas or competitions designed to spread the wealth and fund the best projects. But the Army Corps' budget for building levees and dredging waterways, for example, goes to Capitol Hill as a long list of projects selected by the president. White House officials don't consider those earmarks; budget watchdogs and many members of Congress do.
The White House last year requested 95 Army Corps construction projects with $1.7 billion. Congress funded 258 construction projects for $2 billion, appropriations committee aides said.
Under rules adopted by Republicans, the party's lawmakers next year will be able to accept or reject projects from the White House list but won't be able to substitute any of their own. Democrats haven't followed suit in prohibiting earmarks.
For GOP lawmakers, the self-imposed ban means that if the White House favors the ports of New York and Oakland, Calif., over Savannah, Ga., and Charleston for deep-draft ships, the only recourse will be to beg the administration to relent.
Advocates of the ban say Congress must now step up scrutiny of the administration and issue more-stringent directives on how agencies spend their money.
Without earmarks, some projects will likely die. Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, points to an "environmental infrastructure" fund created in 1992 that pays for wastewater and drinking projects, among others. Mr. Ellis called the program—crafted by two of the most prolific earmarkers, former Rep. Bud Shuster (R., Pa.) and the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D., Pa.)—an end-run around scrutiny of the Environmental Protection Agency funding process.
Every president since Bill Clinton has tried to kill it. Next year, Mr. Ellis said, it likely dies.
Congress has spent $106 million this decade for a floodway project in Dallas, though no administration has requested it. Republican lawmakers won't be able to fight for it next year.
The White House is trying to scuttle three health-care facility construction programs that cost a combined $383 million annually, all kept alive by earmarking. Likewise, the Transportation Department's $34 million rail line relocation grants have survived the White House hit list. In 2010, there were 27 earmarked projects costing a total $25 million.
Without the power to add such projects, the programs could finally die, a White House budget official said.