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Despite Earmarks, Many Districts are Worse Off

Recent protestations by Republican leaders in Congress that earmarks in the recently passed highway bill cannot be used for offsetting spending on hurricane recovery stand in stark contrast to the party’s long record of demanding restraint and accountability in federal spending.

Only three years before the 1994 Republican takeover, then-Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) delivered the following message: “Instead of a highway bill, the Democrats are offering the American people a seminar on pork. While the nation needs roads and bridges, the Democrats squabble amongst themselves over the House brand of bacon. … When the Republicans control this body, the American people won’t have to wait while we squabble among ourselves over how to make the taxpayer foot the bill for pork.”

Earlier that year Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) stated, “I have never seen anything as outrageous as the 1991 highway bill. … I stand opposed to this legislation because spreading pork around to secure enough votes to pass this turkey is wrong.”

During an all night talk-a-thon following passage of the highway bill, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told the House: “We made plenty of suggestions of how to prioritize the spending … and one of the ways we suggested was that this House give up all its foreign travel. … There were many other similar types of wasteful spending around this House that we suggested, including in the so-called highway bill yesterday.”

By the time the 1991 highway bill cleared conference it had a total of 538 earmarks —more than any previous bill in history. But compared with today’s legislative environment, it would be difficult to portray it as irresponsible.

Since the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, there have been 20 separate highway bills enacted, including the one signed by President Bush in August. Prior to 1970, these bills let state highway commissions determine transportation priorities. In 1970, Congress passed a highway bill that included three specific projects to be built based on the directives of Congress. For the next 16 years, highway legislation was passed every two or three years and the bills contained as few as two and as many as 14 earmarks.

In 1987, some rank-and-file Members of Congress decided they wanted the opportunity to do what only big shots had been doing for the past decade and a half — say specifically where in their districts a portion of the highway funds would be spent. That bill contained 155 earmarks and paved the way for the 1991 bill that was the subject of so much outrage among House Republicans.

Republicans amended the 1991 highway bill the year they took control of the House. They added 238 new projects and rescinded none. But the extent of their reversal on this issue was not apparent until 1998 with the enactment of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century, or TEA-21, which contained 1,850 earmarks, or about two and a half times the number of earmarks that had been contained in all highway bills since 1956 combined. The total cost of those earmarks was $9.5 billion.

Based on the 1998 bill, few would have predicted moderation in earmarking in the next highway bill. But just as few would have predicted the level of excess found in the legislation Bush signed last month. That bill contained 6,371 earmarks, diverting more than $23 billion in transportation funding decisions from local authorities.

The number of earmarks in this year’s bill is three times the number in the previous record-breaking bill and well over twice the total number of earmarks in all previous highway bills — including TEA-21. Over the past 50 years there have been 9,242 earmarks in highway bills. Of those, 8,504, or 92 percent, have been inserted in the three highway bills enacted since Republicans took the House 10 years ago.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a Member of Congress second-guessing his state authorities on occasion, or directing that a long-standing problem in his or her community be resolved. But there is plenty wrong with earmarking on the scale that it is now taking place.

First, there is the work involved. With more than 6,300 earmarks, Members of Congress are on average selecting about a dozen projects apiece. Ideally, they would be looking at a great many more traffic and safety issues in their districts to ensure that the biggest problems are fixed first. But Members simply don’t have the time, staff or expertise to make those kinds of decisions, and if they do spend the necessary amount of time on highway spending, it is hard to believe that they are keeping up with what they need to know about Iraq, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or budget deficits.

Moreover, even the most conscientious Members are not likely to make those decisions as well as the state and local officials who spend 365 days a year studying them. Further, many earmarks do not address transportation problems at all.

But equally troubling is the fundamental lack of equity in the latest “Transportation Equity Act.” A huge percentage of the $23 billion in earmarked funds went to a small number of Congressional districts. Press accounts indicate that just three Congressional districts received more than $2 billion, or about 10 percent of the total earmarks. Had the funds been divided equally, every district would have received about $53 million, but because such huge amounts were lavished on a few people it was impossible to give districts represented by rank-and-file Members anything like the amount of money their districts paid in gas taxes to cover the cost of earmarking.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told a reporter, “We were all offered at least $14 million for our districts to spend however we wanted — and just try to relate it to transportation somehow.” That would leave the typical district with less than 30 cents in projects for each dollar they contributed in taxes.

But the worst thing about this practice is how it corrupts the larger legislative process. Boehner had it right in 1991 when he said, “spreading pork around to secure enough votes to pass this turkey is wrong.” What has changed is that bills such as the highway bill are being loaded with pork not just to secure their own passage but to win passage of other legislation that would not otherwise have the support to become law.

The highway bill was the cash register used to buy votes for the Central America Free Trade Agreement — just one example of legislation that passed only because of pork commitments in follow-on legislation. This type of negotiating always has been part of the legislative process. But it also is true that the growth of these kinds of side deals is probably directly proportional to the growth of earmarking — in other words, astronomical.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an adjunct professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He worked on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years, most recently as the House Appropriations Committee minority staff director.