- - Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Earmarks feed the congressional favor factory. They’re the reward House and Senate leaders hand out to members in return for toeing the party line. Members see sending home money for a freeway overpass or a trolley line as the best way to prove to home folks that they’re getting a lot of free stuff in return for their votes.

When earmarking was at its most irresponsible in 2009, Citizens Against Government Waste calculated that “free” stuff was costing taxpayers almost $20 billion. Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican, took the gavel in 2011 and imposed a temporary moratorium on earmarks that is still in place today.

That was a good start, but there’s more to killing earmarks than preventing the birthing of new ones. Before the ban took effect, Congress allocated billions of dollars to fund thousands of earmark projects that were never completed. This money is collecting dust. Some of these long-term unobligated earmarks, or “orphan” earmarks, are more than 25 years old.

According to the Congressional Research Service, clerical error, such as an incorrect road name, can keep the money banked. Other earmarks approved a project, but allocated not enough money, so the concrete was never poured. Occasionally, a state or local government pulled the plug when the locals realized the project wasn’t such a good idea after all.

This creates a purgatory for tax dollars that can’t be spent because the projects don’t exist or will never be completed. Appropriations rules decree that the money can’t be returned to taxpayers because the federal government has no way to collect earmarked money.

A light bulb flashed over the heads of Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, and both decided the rules should be changed. They think the unspent money should return to the U.S. Treasury if it hasn’t been spent within 10 years.

This use-it-or-lose-it policy for transportation earmarks would recoup $125.7 million in unused earmark cash this year, according to the Department of Transportation. If a law is in place next year, the 10th anniversary of a highway bill that dispatched more than 7,000 earmarks, taxpayers could see hundreds of millions — perhaps even billions — of dollars returned to federal vaults. The federal government would have to take less from the American taxpayer and borrow less from China.

The idea of sending back unused earmark money is not new. In 2011, Congress voted to reclaim a number of unused defense and highway earmarks, saving $630 million. The next year, President Obama enabled $473 million designated for 671 stalled earmark projects to go to the states to be used for other transportation purposes. This is often used as a way to generate quick cash during budget negotiations.

It’s an idea that ought to be made permanent. It’s the next step, and a necessary one, to move Congress away from the old way of doing things that put the nation $17.6 trillion in debt. If America’s factories are to run again, the congressional favor factory must be shut down for good.