- - Thursday, August 14, 2014

Earmarks are a lot like the weather. “Everybody talks about the weather,” Mark Twain said, “but nobody does anything about it.” Congress prefers not even to talk about earmarks, and when forced to the wall by public opinion it does as little as it can to prevent the savings of billions of dollars. Congress likes to spend other people’s money. Saving it is no fun.

The ban, so called, on earmarks was meant to be a wall, but it’s really a sieve. Cunning congressmen, who abound in both parties, have figured out where the loopholes and “workarounds” are and continue to use earmarks to pay for pet projects that are irresponsible and indefensible. There’s not even an accepted definition of an earmark, and that’s the way the big spenders like it.

At least 327 earmarks have been stuffed into the Pentagon spending legislation, according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Some of these earmarks have nothing to do with national defense, such as $278 million to fund anti-drug efforts, $7.5 million for epilepsy research and $4.9 million to subsidize “A Capitol Fourth,” the Fourth of July fireworks display and concert on the National Mall.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an earmark as “[a] provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization.” The description widely accepted on Capitol Hill, from a watchdog group called Citizens Against Government Waste, defines an earmark as “a line-item in an appropriations or authorization bill that designates funds for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures.” This watchdog says an earmark is a proposition requested by only one chamber of Congress, not specifically authorized, not competitively awarded, not requested by the president, exceeds the president’s request or the previous year’s funding, not mentioned in congressional hearings, and serves only a local or special interest.

Congress defines an earmark as “any expenditure requested by a lawmaker, intended for a specific state, district or entity, and outside the usual administrative process,” and bans only an earmark that directs money “to a specific state, locality or congressional district.” This is easily “worked around” by sending the money to a “project” rather than to a “state” or “district.”

Sen. Thad Cochran, the big-spending Republican butter-and-egg man from Mississippi, provides a textbook example of how to work that loophole. He said the Navy and Marine Corps sorely needed $800 million worth of a particular amphibious warship, though the Navy and Marines never said so, to be built at a shipyard in Mississippi. Such coincidences inevitably abound. With the help of accomplices in the Senate, he put the ships into the Senate version of the military-spending bill. Unless the earmark is stripped from the legislation before final passage, Mr. Cochran, locked in a re-election campaign, can boast that he delivered $800 million to Mississippi.

The earmark moratorium, trumpeted as the work of flinty congressional tightwads, is actually flimsier than a wet Kleenex. This is what happens when Congress defines a “restriction” on its worthy self. Conscientious congressmen could fix this by expanding the congressional definition of earmarks to include money set aside for any project outside the usual administrative process. This would save billions of dollars and confer much-needed legitimacy to the work of Congress.