Out, Out, Damned Earmark

The word “earmark” has more than four letters, and George Carlin never mentioned it, but it is still considered dirty in American politics. Conservatives view earmarks as a black-and-white issue: They’re bad. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a representative basher, describes earmarks as “real corruption, a drain on the budget.”

And if you turn on the television, you’re likely to hear about this problem—in the past week, the three network news broadcasts, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, mentioned earmarks 91 times—nearly as often as Afghanistan, which was mentioned 113 times.

Journalists of all kinds frequently describe earmarks in similarly black and white terms, lumping them in with corrupt politicians and wasteful projects: On Fox News, Kimberly Strassel talked of “getting rid of earmarks and corruption” (8/30/08), NBC’s Mike Taibbi describes a fight against “corruption and earmarks and pork barrel spending” (9/12/08), and CBS’ Bob Schieffer mentions earmarks and “that bridge to nowhere.”

That simplistic view does not accurately describe the scope, nor the nature, of earmarks. There are different definitions of earmarks—some are surely bad, but some are quite useful. And as a matter of national priority, they simply are not the biggest problem—certainly not as big as, say, Afghanistan.

Even defining the term is a problem. Congressional Quarterly says that, “virtually every appropriation is earmarked.” But in practice, the definition is narrower—the Office of Management and Budget says earmarks are the funds asked for by legislators—“Congress includes earmarks in appropriation bills—the annual spending bills that Congress enacts to allocate discretionary spending—and also in authorization bills.”

This distinction is one that is often misunderstood. CBS news headlined a piece in January about President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech: “Bush Pledges Crackdown on Earmarks.” The piece led with several paragraphs of Bush’s attacks: “The people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks—special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate.”

Not mentioned in the story is that, for all intents and purposes, the president is traditionally earmarker-in-chief. Buried deep in his presidential budget this year, Bush requested $330 million to deal with plant pests such as the emerald ash borer, the light brown apple moth, and the sirex woodwasp. He sought $800,000 for the Neosho National Fish Hatchery in Missouri and $1.5 million for a waterway named in honor of former Senator J. Bennett Johnston. He also requested $894,000 for an air traffic control tower in Kalamazoo, Michigan; $12 million for a parachute repair shop at the American air base in Aviano, Italy; and $6.5 million for research in Wyoming on the “fundamental properties of asphalt.”

As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly explains, earmarks are a presidential problem, too. Bush may choose to define earmarks as only congressional funding requests, but the president makes the same requests—and in terms of transparency and dollar amount, there’s really not much difference.

As Bush noted, lack of debate can be a problem with earmarks. When legislators insert earmarks at the last minute, few of their colleagues get a chance to actually see what’s being approved—and this is naturally fertile ground for corruption. These projects often serve very narrow interests—the famous “Bridge to Nowhere” is a $398 million plan to build a bridge nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and as tall as the Brooklyn Bridge, to service an island of 50 people. That’s a bad earmark. As is another bridge in Alaska that Rep. Don Young requested $600 million to build. It connects to a town of only 7,000, and incidentally, Young’s son owns property near the bridge’s proposed Western span. That’s a bad earmark, too. It’s a project that benefits few—notably the congressional earmarker—at the cost of many taxpayers.

Lack of transparency is clearly a problem, and reform efforts are ongoing. But it’s important to remember—take note, journalists—that just because the process for getting an earmark can be tainted, earmarks themselves are not evil, and shouldn’t be carelessly made synonymous with corruption.

Citizens elect officials to Congress in part to secure money that will make their district better—something that is often done through earmarks. In Arizona, earmarks are used to repair military installations and prepare for flood plain control. In Ohio, they’re used for wind turbines and a feasibility study on a new airport. One of the most pilloried earmarks is the $4.8 million spent to study grizzly bear DNA in Montana—but that program has brought the bear back from extinction in that area.

The bottom line is that, while the process needs reform, “earmark” is not a slur. In fact, that’s a central point—we probably hear about earmarks too often, period. Watchdog groups analyzed the federal fiscal spending in 2008, and estimated that there was between $16 and $18 billion in “earmark” spending. Note that the federal government spent $2.9 trillion dollars in that same year. All earmarks combined made up less than 1 percent of the federal budget. And they are certainly not the reason that so much of our economy is tottering on the brink of collapse today—a story that all but eluded coverage until it had reached Katrina-level proportions.

One wonders just what other catastrophes lurk beneath the coverage as the media continues to chase stories that sound sexy but are ultimately of secondary significance.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.