Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus
Better Roads Staff | October 9, 2012
Politics with Earmarks
While the citizenry and media of the United States focused on election polls and campaign rumors this summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation quietly announced that more than $470 million in unobligated earmark funds was being released to the states for investment in transportation infrastructure.
The unspent earmarks were originally appropriated for the 2003-2006 fiscal years, according to the AASHTO Journal, which reported the story.
So, six to nine years after it was supposed to have been invested, nearly a half-billion dollars is finally being put to use for transportation infrastructure.
No doubt the state transportation departments receiving these funds are delighted to have access to the money at last. And it’s a good bet that the money will go further today than it would have in the halcyon days of 2003-06.
But this is a horribly inefficient way to run a transportation system.
While populist politicians, editorial writers and the general citizenry have become focused on earmarks as a dastardly form of corruption, the main practical drawback to earmarks — as practiced on the last two long-term transportation bills — was the way they tied up substantial amounts of investment dollars in a long-term limbo until the earmarked project was at last ready to be let … or all hope for the project was gone.
It goes something like this: Congressman Smith obtains funds for a long-needed project in his district — a bridge, a road, a parking lot for a commuter rail station — only for the project to be delayed or killed by public opposition, or political intrigue, or environmental compliance problems, or changing needs. The earmarked funds sit in limbo for years, depriving Congressman Smith’s district and state the infrastructure improvements and jobs the Highway Trust Fund revenues are supposed to provide.
This problem can be solved with new rules about earmark-funded projects, rules that release the funds sooner if the project is not underway in a reasonable time frame.
The other valid objections to earmarks can also be solved with rules changes. If we limit earmarks on the transportation bill to, say, one per congressman and one or two per senator, we’re back under 500 earmarks, a reasonable number. We might also limit the amount of an earmark, or stipulate that earmarks over a certain amount have to be approved by the state’s governor.
The point is, earmarks have a valuable and legitimate place in American politics. They help make large spending bills more relevant to local constituents. They help congressmen justify their votes for major spending bills like transportation to the folks back home. And they allow otherwise forgotten congressional districts — such as a red district in a blue state, or vice-versa — to get the bridge or the exit ramp or the new highway they need without kowtowing to the powers that be.
Corrupt? No more so than the rural congressman voting for farm interests, or the urban representative voting for city issues.
Corruption? Exhibit A is MAP-21, an earmark-free transportation act that is such a breach of congressional responsibility that its authors — the entire Senate and House — should be cited for dereliction of duty.
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