I found your recent editorial lamenting the current fate of congressional earmarks an interesting piece. As you know, the use of earmarks is a long-standing method of Congress to fund projects that might otherwise not receive funding. Whether or not these projects deserve to be funded is not usually a criterion for requesting tax dollars to support the project. The primary criteria are will it get me votes in the next election?
What happens, is after the budget has gone through the mark ups, been authorized, appropriated, and signed (as the presidents budget) it will be distributed to the government agencies for their use. If the congressman is unable or unwilling to defend a desired project during the appropriation and authorization process, then is fearful that the funding agency might not prioritize the project or program in their district high enough to be above the funding cut off, he/she identifies specific funds from an agency and earmarks those funds so that they can only be spent on the specific project or program that the congressman supports. For all intents and purposes the money has been spent it just is a way to out prioritize the original request of the funding agency. This is usually done by sliding the earmark in as basically a footnote to a high priority funding bill, which also accomplishes the secondary goal of avoiding debate, thereby running the risk of getting the attention of the public on this particular expenditure.
There is no addition of moneys to fund the earmark, so the congressmans gain is some other project/programs loss without the benefit of competition. It also makes it easier for the congressman to obtain votes for something in his/her district without really having to put up a fight for it. The legwork, mostly bureaucratic coordination, is accomplished by congressional staffers.
Without earmarking, or now they are working on letter marking and phone marking, the congressman will be forced to actually debate the merits of the projects they wish to support to gain a priority position on the funding ladder of the agency they are dealing with. What a concept! Is the project actually beneficial and worthwhile instead of just buying votes for the next election?
Unfortunately, once again this work will be done by the staffers, signed off by congressmen and, unless other powerful support is received, will go to the funding agency where it will be re-prioritized. People who voted in recent elections believing they would continue to benefit from the current Washington state senators methods of doing business need to re-think how business is going to be done.
The take I have on Washington is that although some bastions of Congress may continue to influence how Washington works, the recent elections have signaled that there is going to be a new set of rules to play by. Due to the paucity of funds, earmarks and their supporters are gone, in its place will be a funding program based on real needs not pork. For example, why arent our representatives in Washington able to support the tidal-power generation study instead of spending millions to establish a monument to Rep. Charlie Wrangel?
Both programs were earmarks, albeit from different agencies within the budget, obviously a comparative analysis was never made of their respective merits, as should be done with all funding requests, but look which one got funded.