Sen. John McCain, who should know, once complained that Congress spends money on earmarks like a drunken sailor. This spending spree seen by penny-pinching Republican taxpayers was one of the central causes why the GOP lost both houses of Congress by the 2008 elections.
Now that the Democrats are in control, earmarks continue to pad appropriation bills but at a slightly lower level than when the Republicans were in charge. It's still an obscene culture.
The watchdog group Taxpayers For Common Sense reported the omnibus spending bill passed by the House contains 5,224 earmarks costing about $3.9 billion of the total $447 billion measure. But, that's only earmarks reported by House members voluntarily. Nor does it include the military spending bill which traditionally has more earmarks than all the other spending bills combined. That's an average 12 earmarks for each House member.
No Republican voted for the bill but many of the projects included earmarks placed in the bill by the GOP before the final floor vote.
The measure brings total earmarks in this year's spending bills to 7,577 at a cost of about $6 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The Pentagon spending bill, the last of the annual appropriations bills, is expected to contain more earmarks than the omnibus bill, said Steve Ellis of the taxpayer group.
Click here for a more detailed report on the omnibus bill compiled by Taxpayers For Common Sense.
Congress defends the practice despite the criticism because it shows they are delivering the bacon for constituents back home, or to put a spin on it, returning their taxes in gift packages.
Knocking earmarks as special favors has become a cottage industry in itself. I tend to look at alternative sources of financing. For example, the City of Bellflower, Calif., receives a $100,000 earmark to build bus shelters. Suggestion: Have the city or transit district build them and allow merchants to advertise in which the revenue eventually would pay for the cost.
Example: Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who secured $800,000 for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, said that the project would help generate tourism dollars. Suggestion: Take a portion of the hotel-motel tax to improve the trail and more tourists will come.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of pork-barrel spending, singled out for criticism $200,000 provided for the Aquatic Adventures Science Education Foundation in San Diego. Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego) said that the money would go to a program that will "inspire children to pursue education in the sciences while encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college." This seems to me a duplication of services already offered by the San Diego City Schools District and private enterprises such as the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park.
Another example: A $250,000 earmark for textile research at UC Davis. Suggestion: Apply for a grant from the textile manufacturers association.
I did a little researching on my own and realized even the non-profit organizations have problems with earmarks. That is, they too often are granted not on merit but by who you know in Congress.
Rich Cohen, a veteran community development director, writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly:
While we understand some of the arguments in favor of earmarks, especially those raised by rural groups that point out how earmarks constitute a small but important mechanism for getting money to rural areas notwithstanding the frequent built-in urban biases to many federal competitive programs, we tend to be unsympathetic toward earmarks in the federal budget. Relatively few nonprofits to our knowledge have the political connections or can pay for the earmark-lobbying experts to win these grants. The playing field for nonprofits competing for grant support of any kind is hardly level, we know, but earmarks clearly reflect one of the most uneven, asymmetrical dimensions of the federal grants scrum.
I confess I have scant faith in the feds doling out taxpayer money when the economy remains in the doldrums and federal deficits and national debt expressed in trillions of dollars. Perhaps in better times ...
Perhaps we should enact a concept in which Bill Maher invokes on his HBO show. In a segment called "New Rules" I would decree only federal projects awarded taxpayer funding until the economy rights itself.
It reminds me when then Gov. Jerry Brown admonished Californians during an earlier recession to "lower your horizons."