Senators, Congressmen, Countrymen;
Lend Me Your Earmarks
By John Latta
Moves are being made in Washington to free up billions in transportation “earmark” funds, especially those commonly called “orphan earmarks.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, has introduced two bills aimed at using federal money allocated to highway projects that remains unspent . . . and idle. And Sen. Claire McCaskill [D-Mo] wants not only orphan earmark money back, but an end to all transportation earmarks.
“This legislation will ensure that funding already directed toward highway projects is put to good use, improving our roads and bridges, and creating more construction jobs,” says Casey.
Casey cites reports that indicate that almost one in three dollars earmarked for highway projects since 1991 remain unspent, totaling $13 billion nationwide and $392 million in his native Pennsylvania. McCaskill assesses Missouri’s loss over that time at $101 million. Casey’s two bills:
The Redistribution of Unspent Earmarks Act will require any earmarks that are more than three years old and not obligated to a specific project to be returned to the state transportation department with jurisdiction over the project, allowing the money to be spent on other federally-approved projects.
The Use It or Lose It Act will require congressionally- directed funding from the Highway Trust Fund to be obligated for a project no later than three years after the funds were first made available. If funds are not obligated in that time frame, they will be released to the state transportation department, which will then be able to direct it toward other federally-approved transportation projects in that state.
But changing the way earmarks operate will always be an uphill battle in Washington, and this attempt is no different. Former Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters went on record as saying she expects Casey’s proposal to fail, in part because congressmen suspect states would simply sit on their hands for three years until the money became theirs with no Washington politician’s strings attached.
But in the Casey camp is Senator McCaskill, a long-time earmark reform advocate, who has written to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking him to investigate how so much funding is sitting unused and essentially inaccessible in the no man’s land of orphaned earmarks. These idle funds prevent states from accessing their share of highway funding by skewing the funding formula used in Washington. And they remain on ice, unable to be used for anything other than their original designation.
McCaskill went a step further: She asked LaHood to work toward ending “the process of earmarking in transportation bills and instead allocate money for projects solely through, merit and need-based formula funding.”
According to McCaskill, members of Congress earmarking pet projects do not completely understand nor correctly assess the specific needs and specs of those projects, so that when earmarks arrive in a state or region, local authorities often have a difficult time actually using the money. In fact, simple paperwork mistakes are a considerable roadblock in many cases.
“Far more egregious,” McCaskill says in her letter to LaHood, “is that these orphan earmarks also count against a state’s share of federal highway funds, resulting in state departments of transportation losing that money.”
McCaskill, who says she has never requested an earmark while in office, writes that, “Since joining the Senate in 2007, I have worked to put an end to the practice of earmarking because I do not believe that members of Congress know better than those in their state how best to utilize federal funding, and that earmarks further eliminate funding that could be made available through competition or formula. The recent reports of these orphan earmarks confirm that this is most certainly the case when it comes to transportation funding.”
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