Editorial: Earmark Dodges

Posted April 13, 2010 at 3:40pm

A fascinating contest over earmarks is under way in the House. Once Democratic leaders decided to approve Members’ local funding requests only for nonprofit entities, Republicans decided to trump them by imposing a one-year moratorium on all earmarks, including special tax and tariff breaks.

It’s not at all clear which party will benefit politically — Republicans, hoping that their total ban will restore the GOP’s tarnished reputation for fiscal discipline, or Democrats, who contend that helping local universities, governments and foundations is still part of a Member’s job.

For sure, the competition represents a vast improvement on the patterns of the past, when most Members unapologetically vied with each other to “bring home the bacon” — and could do so out of public view until it was time to cut a ribbon.

Earmarks led to scandal and criminal convictions, so now transparency has improved in both the House and Senate, and the total value of earmarks has dropped almost by half since 2006.

It should drop even more this year given the House competition, although there are holes in the levees that the two parties have erected.

The widest is the Senate, which has not agreed to any limits on special interest appropriations or tax breaks. House Members or local favor-seekers can ask a friendly Senator to sponsor an earmark that a House Member could not secure.

As Roll Call disclosed earlier this month, some Democrats are using another dodge to bypass their party’s ban on earmarks for for-profit companies — channeling them through not-for-profit foundations, universities or trade associations.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) withdrew her sponsorship of a solar technology project for the University of Connecticut after Roll Call inquired about its partnership with a German glass company.

But other Democrats are persisting in the practice, including Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who is requesting earmarks for the Iowa Biotechnology Center and the Iowa Soybean Association, which have as associates large agribusiness companies such as Cargill Inc. and Monsanto.

Three Republicans — Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Ron Paul (Texas) and Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.) — are simply refusing to adhere to the GOP earmark moratorium on the grounds that they owe their allegiance to their constituents, not party leaders.

Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) also is standing behind millions of dollars in earmarks for defense contractors even though he says he knows they will not be approved.

As we’ve said before, we think the best procedure for earmarks is neither moratoriums nor for-profit/not-for-profit distinctions, but “regular order” — approval of projects in competition overseen by federal agencies under rules established by Congress and, when Members are unhappy with those outcomes, approval of projects by both authorizing and appropriations committees.

This year’s rules represent fascinating political and procedural experiments, however. We’re eager to see how voters respond — and whether the new rules prevail or are defeated by dodges.