Eliminate Waste or Kill Good Projects? Earmark Ban Could Cut Both Ways

As the election news sunk in yesterday, President Obama sought common ground with the incoming Republican leadership. His olive branch: earmarks.

The new Republican majority could try to ban earmarks - including ones for bikes and transit. Photo: POLITICO

The new Republican majority could try to ban earmarks - including ones for bikes and transit. Photo: POLITICO

In a nod to the likely new House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), Obama singled out an earmark ban as an area of agreement for the two parties. Cantor has called earmarks “the poster child for Washington’s wasteful spending binges.”

Just about everyone agrees that earmark reform is needed to stop funding projects like the original bridge to nowhere — the $398 million bridge to connect 50 Alaska residents to the airport. Or Florida’s notorious $10 million road to nowhere, which ends at a chain link fence. Or the million dollars New York Senator Chuck Schumer secured to study widening Route 17 in rural Sullivan County.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, as head of the Transportation Committee, worked hard to make the earmark process transparent. He posted a spreadsheet of member requests on the committee website [PDF] and defined eligibility requirements [PDF].

While there are wasteful earmarks that go to projects without merit, an outright ban makes some transportation advocates nervous. “A portion of our program has been earmarked,” says Homer Carlisle, a legislative affairs specialist at the American Public Transportation Association. “It’s just one of many sources of funding.” If there’s a real need for a project, Carlisle says, the earmark process has been a way for lawmakers to get necessary federal support for local priorities.

Many lawmakers speak with pride about the funding they secure through earmarks for projects in their districts. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) told POLITICO that “there is obviously a need for a member to be able to come on out to the Congress for a particular need in his or her district that the regular order is not solving.”

Bike Portland notes that Rob Sadowsky, Board Member of the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking and Walking, is concerned about the earmark ban too.

“While earmark funding on surface appears to be a poor way of managing a democracy,” Sadowsky said, “our projects, particularly trail projects have historically done very well through earmarks.”

He went on to say that if we really want to usher in a new system where projects are evaluated based on merit, “we need a reform of the transportation bill, and with a split congress it will be difficult to get reform inside that bill… We may not do as well in project funding in the future.”

Ken Orski, who writes the transportation-focused newsletter Innovation Briefs, has concluded that a total elimination of congressional earmarks is politically unrealistic. But many lawmakers, like Rep. Cantor, have already stopped using them. Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has never used them.

And President Obama said last month that Washington needs to reform the “patchwork approach of funding and maintaining our infrastructure.” He may view an earmark ban as a chance to direct transportation funding where it is most needed. “We’ve got to focus less on wasteful earmarks, outdated formulas,” he said. “We’ve got to focus more on competition and innovation.”

Indeed, top DOT officials have already been trying to make transportation funding more strategic and less scattershot. The TIGER program is a step in that direction, but the funding pot is a small fraction of what the feds disburse to state DOTs, and it hasn’t been sufficient to bring entire transportation networks into the 21st century. DOT officials have been looking for ways to connect different programs and shape regional transportation systems – something earmarks will never be able to do.

“Congress is going to face a decision,” said APTA’s Carlisle, “on whether to continue earmarking, turn over more spending decisions to the administration – or finish the transportation bill.”

Given the GOP ascension in the House, providing the administration with more funding leeway may be a politically unpopular choice. We’d have to agree that producing a long-term transportation bill is the best option for reforming the earmark process.