Earmarks by another name

Legislators have a new way of targeting spending that could bring benefits and burdens for agencies.

 

"There are no earmarks in this bill," Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told fellow lawmakers in May when he urged support for a major bipartisan agreement on legislation to develop the nation's water resources.

"This conference report contains no earmarks," added Rep. Robert Gibbs (R-Ohio), chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee that handled the bill, which the House passed 412-4.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reinforced the point the same day when he told reporters that he has kept his promise and that as long as he is speaker, "there will be no earmarks."

But that message apparently did not reach the other side of the Capitol two days later when the Senate gave final approval to the measure, 91-7. A summary prepared by the bill's bipartisan managers boasted that the agreement "sets priorities that address the needs of larger ports, like Los Angeles, Long Beach and New Orleans."

Not coincidentally, those major facilities happen to be in the home states of the chairman and ranking minority member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which handled the bill in the Senate. Neither Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) nor the panel's senior Republican, David Vitter of Louisiana, cited or embraced the no-earmark claims of the bill's House sponsors.

A legislative hybrid

The House and Senate were participating in what could be called the "big wink." Their bicameral deal created a legislative hybrid that seems similar to the old practice of approving funds for local projects, but with little public or news media attention, Congress added sufficient additional steps so that earmark opponents could claim that they were abandoning their bad practices of the past.

The new procedures likely will emerge in other federal programs, and they are already placing significant burdens on executive branch agencies -- such as the Army Corps of Engineers with the water-resources plan. Buried in the accompanying legislative language in the House/Senate conference report on the waterways bill were the Corps' detailed descriptions of more than three dozen projects nationwide.

The agency's descriptions and approvals, including specific locations and costs, filled more than 300 pages of the Congressional Record, leaving no doubt about who were the agreement's beneficiaries.

Even before the Boehner-led Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they publicly emphasized their opposition to any legislation that targeted projects for specific locations. Earmarks had been particularly popular for measures that fund public-works projects, which historically have been called pork-barrel spending and are now prime targets for foes of excessive government spending.

IT has not been immune to the process. Technology earmarks have ranged from a data center in Bowling Green, Ky., to a "wideband multimedia mobile emergency communications pilot project" in Wasilla, Alaska.

What is an earmark?

The term's meaning was originally quite literal: It referred to a cut or mark on the ears of livestock that identified the animals' owner. Since the 19th century, however, it has been used to mean "setting aside money for a special purpose."

The Office of Management and Budget has defined earmarks as "funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction...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."

Before House Republicans declared a ban on congressional earmarks, major spending bills could contain hundreds or even thousands of those designations. IT-specific earmarks have included:

  • $479,000 for a health information system in New Jersey (2008)
  • $600,000 for a Center for the Development of IT in Florida (2008)
  • $1.1 million for a data center in Kentucky (2010)
  • $1.2 million for reconfigurable secure computing in Virginia (2009)
  • $1.2 million for a cybersecurity laboratory and research program in Louisiana (2010)
  • $2.4 million for cyberthreat analytics in California (2009)
  • $3.3 million for mobile electronic warfare support in Pennsylvania (2005)
  • $3.5 million for a cybersecurity test bed and evaluation center in North Carolina (2010)
  • $5 million for a mobile emergency communications pilot project in Alaska (2005)
  • $9.9 million for a high-end computer network in Ohio (2005)

Republicans added the earmark ban to House rules, including leadership protocols for handling legislation, in 2010. And in early 2011, President Barack Obama said he would veto any bill that included such projects.

"The handwriting is clearly on the wall," said the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time. "Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted."

Nearly four years later, the ban remains in place. But senior legislative aides and other close observers emphasize that the devil is in the details.

"The current earmark rules capture some things that [they] shouldn't and fail to capture some things that [they] should," said a veteran congressional aide who has worked on the issue. A major problem is that "people often look for process solutions to problems that aren't process problems."

Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) voiced similar concerns at a recent conference on congressional budget procedures, which was sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"We expect too much out of the Budget Act and out of Congress," he said. These fights are "so contentious because it's all about who has the power."

At the same conference, former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin added, "You can't design a process to trump a political problem."

A positive role for earmarks?

Like the Army Corps of Engineers, other federal agencies that administer large projects or are subject to congressional whims have in recent years learned the consequences of ever-changing Capitol Hill politics. The Defense Department, for example, has found itself contending with congressional committees that impose programs or contracts that the military doesn't want. And in many cases, lobbying firms are taking their case directly to Pentagon officials.

"The congressional earmark ban and stringent caps on discretionary spending have dramatically altered the landscape" for the defense industry and federal contractors, CQ Weekly reported in June. "Defense companies are increasing their outreach to the Pentagon to build support for their programs and are targeting congressional authorizers, who can write policies favorable to their businesses and their bottom lines."

For decades, the congressional appropriations committees have targeted local projects to favored members, especially those who serve on the panels. Those abuses grew when Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) became a House Republican leader in 1995. Indeed, Republicans' recent no-earmark pledge built on bipartisan objections to DeLay's excesses.

However, the breakdown of the routine appropriations process in the past few years -- coupled with the growing use of omnibus spending bills -- has reduced opportunities to target spending to particular states or congressional districts, and many appropriators are now seeking ways to revive earmarks but with fewer political shenanigans.

Defenders of earmarks argue that they were useful in generating lawmakers' support for complex bills, which have become more difficult to pass amid the current congressional dysfunction. For a relatively modest fiscal cost, proponents contend, restoring some of that legislative grease might facilitate political alliances.

A former agency CIO told FCW that earmarks can have other benefits. "I can recall some earmarks which I likely bridled about at the time but did serve to get us working with and looking at companies that weren't among our 'usual suspects,'" he said.

Given the Obama administration's emphasis on innovation and Silicon Valley-style development, "those past earmarks did get us acquainted with new and up-and-coming firms...that often proved to be a good thing," the former CIO said.

Still, the deep public disapproval of Congress makes it doubtful that many earmark defenders will embrace their cause with straightforward support. For now at least, calls for modifying congressional budget procedures seem unlikely to yield more than modest tinkering at the edges.

And some lawmakers will continue to seek ways to wink at reform pressures as they carry on with business as usual.

NEXT STORY: Making a 22,000-mile service call

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.