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Earmarks and Kansas elections

The topic of earmarks is playing a role in contest for the Republican Party nomination for United States Senate from Kansas between Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran.

The United States Office of Management and Budget provides one definition of earmarks: “Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction (whether in statutory text, report language, or other communication) circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.”

What is the difference between earmark spending and “regular” government spending? Speaking on the floor of the House in March 2009, Ron Paul, the libertarian member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas and Republican presidential candidate in 2008, made these remarks:

In reality what we need are more earmarks. Just think of the 350 billion dollars that we recently appropriated and gave to the Treasury Department. Now everybody is running around and saying, “We don’t know where the money went, we just gave it to them in a lump sum.” We should have earmarked everything. It should have been designated where the money is going. So instead of too many earmarks we don’t have enough earmarks. Transparency is the only way we can get to the bottom of this and if you make everything earmarked it would be much better.

This is a key distinguishing characteristic of earmark spending: legislators, rather than agencies like the Treasury Department, decide how and where the money is spent.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, earmarks are estimated to cost $11 billion in the current fiscal year (2010), which is down from $15 billion the year before. The Washington newspaper The Hill warns, however, that some of this decrease is due to a change in classification of some spending.

While some view earmarks and their elimination as a defining issue, we must remember that the level of earmark spending is relatively small compared to the entire federal budget. The 2010 budget calls for spending $3.55 trillion, so earmarks account for 0.3 percent of this amount. Considering discretionary spending only — and earmarks are discretionary — earmarks are 0.8 percent of $1.368 trillion planned discretionary spending.

This is not to say that this spending is not harmful and should not be eliminated.

Paul — accurately self-described as “America’s leading voice for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies” — defends his insertion of earmarks into appropriations bills. In an article titled Earmarks Don’t Add Up, Paul explained why:

The total level of spending is determined by the Congressional leadership and the appropriators before any Member has a chance to offer any amendments. Members’ requests are simply recommendations to allocate parts of that spending for certain items in that members’ district or state. If funds are not designated, they revert to non-designated spending controlled by bureaucrats in the executive branch. In other words, when a designation request makes it into the budget, it subtracts funds out of what is available to the executive branch and bureaucrats in various departments, and targets it for projects that the people and their representatives request in their districts. If a congressman does not submit funding requests for his district the money is simply spent elsewhere. To eliminate all earmarks would be to further consolidate power in the already dominant executive branch and not save a penny.

A spokesman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, was quoted in The Hill article as saying “Earmarks represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and they don’t add a dime to it — they are simply a way for Congress to direct funding that would otherwise be directed by administration officials.”

So here we have both liberal and conservative legislators defending the system.

It goes without saying that we need to reform this process. Currently, it allows members to say that since the money’s going to be spent somewhere, let’s spend it in my district. The motivation of members is that since their districts are taxed to send the money to Washington, they need to fight to get their districts’ fair share back — and some more, for good measure. This used to be one of the measures of success of a Congressman.

But the rise of federal spending and indebtedness has been one of the primary motivating factors of the tea party movement, and earmarks are a favorite target of conservative ire and anger.

So how do the two veteran Kansas Congressmen rank on earmarks and “pork” spending? The Club for Growth compiles a scorecard called the RePORK Card. This measures votes on “68 anti-pork amendments” in the 2009 Congress. Club Executive Director David Keating writes “The RePORK Card will help taxpayers measure the dedication of their representatives to changing the culture of corruption that surrounds pork-barrel spending.”

For 2009, Moran scored 96 percent, voting against 65 of the 68 measures. Tiahrt scored 29 percent, voting against 20 of the 68.

In the previous year for this project (2007), the two representatives’ scores were much closer: Moran scored four percent, while Tiahrt scored zero percent.

According to analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Tiahrt was responsible for 13 “solo” earmarks in the 2010 budget, totaling $5,550,000 in spending. Moran was close behind with eight earmarks with a total value of $5,150,000. Solo earmarks are defined as “The total of earmarks on which only that member’s name appears.”

Considering solo earmarks and earmarks with other members, Tiahrt notched spending of $63,400,000, with Moran at $18,600,000. These earmarks are defined as “The total of earmarks on which that member’s name appears, either by itself or with other members. TCS does not split an earmark.”

In a recent forum of candidates for the Republican Party nomination for United States Congress from the fourth district of Kansas sponsored by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, candidates were asked about earmarks.

(The candidates and their campaign websites are Wichita businessman Jim Anderson, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, Wichita businessman Mike Pompeo, Latham engineer Paij Rutschman, and Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf.)

Rutschman said representatives want to do things that are in the interest of their states, but we should not pass earmarks that are detrimental to the nation.

Schodorf said that the appropriation process should be transparent, but that we need to cut spending today.

Anderson said that he is against earmarks, saying that the process provides for corruption of the political process. He would support legislation outlawing the process.

Hartman said he is totally against earmarks, noting that many people think that earmarks are good when they “make your grass turn green,” but a “bridge to nowhere” is different. He seconded Anderson’s concern about corruption.

Pompeo said he is against earmarks, saying that if “safe roads make good sense, we in Kansas can figure out how to fund them.” He agreed with concerns about corruption.

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6 Comments

  1. Craig June 28, 2010

    I thought I was totally against earmarks but Ron paul makes them sound plausible. It still stinks of special interest, and that is fish we need to throw away not breeding more of.

  2. Marie B. Martin June 28, 2010

    I have enjoyed and been informed by this article, Bob, and thank you for it. My son and his family live in Wichita. Every time I’ve visited over many years, I have read the paper, especially enjoying the Letters to the Editor. – Not so different views from ours here in Florence, SC! When we receive our Christmas box, the 1st thing I do is spread out the newspaper protective wrappings for a long enjoyable time later. Thanks again!

  3. Larry Halloran June 28, 2010

    If anyone wants look at the adverse side of earmarks I would encourage them to watch the Independence Caucus videos titled “The Tale of Two Congressmen” at http://www.icaucus.org.

    As mentioned in Bob’s article, all earmarks are not bad. It depends on how they are received and presented by our Congressman or others. Those that have seen the light of day and were submitted by some local community that went through a competitive bid process are probably not that bad on the serface. One would then have to ask themselves if Congress actually has the authority to collect taxes or fees to fund such request to begin with. Congress seems to collect and spend our tax dollars on many things they have NO authority to deal with.

    On the downside, many earmarks come about as a result of lobbiest actively searching for clients across the country and saling our tax dollars for mear cents (as little as 3 cents) on the dollar to those who could use some additional funding for some project. They find a client who could use the money and offer to obtain the desired cash (earmark) for them for a fee. They charge the client, purhaps a local government $15,000 a month for 12 months and in exchange they obtain an earmark worth purhaps millions of dollars for the client from a Congressman or Senator they routinely deal with or better yet contribute to on a regular basis. The payback to the client can be significant, maybe 30 to 1 for their investment. Not a bad return on their investment wouldn’t you agree.

    Some of the hidden negatives come when the lobbist contributes to the campaign coffers of the Congressman or Senator or their special pacs each can set up. These go by all kinds of names and while they can not spend the money on themselves directly, they contribute back and forth to each other to launder the funds.

    Of course the big lobbiest and those who have receivded gobs of our tax dollars are always interested in the tax treatment that money might receive and a totally new round of congressional giving starts inorder that they might recieve the most favorable tax treatment possible. It is no wonder the tax code is thousands of pages and has grown on average by 700+ pages a year since it began.

    I think Ron Paul was being a bit sarcastic when comparing the earmark spending with the unaccountable spending done by the executive branch. Done the right way, above board, earmarks might not be all bad. But very little is done the right way in Washington.

    Congress has limited powers of authority and we should demand that they only collect and spend our tax dollars on those things they are authorized to handle on our behalf; period.

    I would really encourage you to watch those videos. They place a Democrat and Republican Congressman from Utah side by side and track the dollars in and out of Washington. It will be an eye opener for most.

  4. sue c. June 29, 2010

    Larry’s reference to the videos by IC are very good. They are eye opening.

    I think the electorate has been a bit “bipolar” when it comes to earmarks. On one hand citizens want to get back the money they send to DC, then on the other they hate the stench that comes with the pork.

    The facts show that Congressmen who bring home the most pork used to get re-elected at a high rate 88% (?). Since the Tea Parties, and awareness of the pork-meisters in DC, as they get exposed, there may be a blow-back now.

  5. Anonymous June 29, 2010

    The critical thing is to distinguish the purpose of an earmark.
    Ask yourself: is an earmark given to advance a private interest or a public interest? I think that a “public interest” can be justified because it is the entire public that can be served because of the project.

    My contention is that if it is to advance a “private” interest, that is the corrupting part of the process. It is a questionable matter if a member of the Congress helps someone build a business for that person’s personal profit. It is also likely that a kickback in the form of a campaign contribution can occur, and perhaps they have, under these circumstances.
    Using “earmarks” to do favors for an individual is one reason incumbents get re-elected.

    Our Fourth District representative has not been totally cleared on possible ethics violations in regards to earmarks. It is a matter that is now before the Department of Justice. The so-called earlier examination by the Office of Congressional Ethics could be considered a “whitewash,” which is why Congressman Jake Flake of Arizona, for one, has asked for more information and scrutiny of the members under investigation, including Congressman Todd Tiahrt. The committee refused to divulge the details of what they concluded, so the matter has now gone to the Department of Justice for more scrutiny.

    How can Representative Tiahrt call himself the “conservative candidate” for the Brownback Senate seat when he ranks among the highest in the amount of “earmarks” that he has given out as a member of the House Appropriations Committee?

    Let us face it; earmarks have brought a “culture of corruption” into being. Just ask the convicted felon and founder of the now defunct PMA group, Jack Abramoff, who served time for his corrupt practices with members of the Appropriations committees. Example: The late John Murtha, D-PA, was probably one of the crookedest in the “earmark” process: “I will get an earmark for your client, Mr. Abramoff, if I get a campaign contribution.” That is how the process has worked.

    Folks, there has been a tremendous misuse of your hard-earned tax dollars. Appropriation committee members are “beltway insiders.” A “culture of corruption” has come into existence. The subcommittee chairpersons of the Appropriations committees are called “the Cardinals of Capitol Hill.” It is time to turn them out of office.

  6. Larry Halloran June 29, 2010

    The point that most Americans are missing today with regard to the federal government is that our Constitution only granted limited powers to it. With those powers comes the authority to raise taxes and appropriate funds. Thus earmarks are not needed unless Congress is spending money on items they have NO authority to spend money on!

    We also need to understand that the money coming back to the states from these earmarks IS NOT the tax dollars we sent to the government. That money was long ago spent and the money we now send only pays the interest on the debt generated from the out of control spending over the past decades.

    The money coming back to the states now from earmarks belongs to our grand children (from whom we are stealing blind). Earmarks should be stopped period. Congress has the authority to raise and spend to meet the responsibilities our founders tasked them with. Beyond the scope of that authority they have NO business unless they receive our consent to expand their authority through a Constitutional Amendment.

    Please be careful and wise with your vote on August 3rd. We can not afford to do the same things we have been doing. Those we elect must have the courage and principles of our founders. Vote for the candidate that you would trust your life and the life of your family too, because it may well come to that.

    Please watch the ICaucus videos (Articles) at http://www.icaucus.org.

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