Defining an Earmark

By Kellyn Brown

On Nov. 18, Montana Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg sent a letter to the state’s Democratic U.S. senators urging them to “heed the will of Montanans” and join the GOP in swearing off earmarks for three years. Less than a week later, Sen. Max Baucus responded in writing, describing the move as a “political stunt.” It’s impossible to determine who’s right when the definition of what constitutes pork-barrel spending is unwritten.

Just three days after the GOP senators joined their House colleagues in an earmark ban, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, attached a $200 million measure – that would settle an Indian tribe’s water rights claim – to a larger bill that settles other claims by minorities against the federal government.

Kyl insists the attachment is not pork, but critics pointed out that under Senate rules an earmark is money inserted “primarily at the request of a senator” that is “targeted to a specific state.”

“I do know an earmark when I see it,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the Senate floor. “And this, my friends, is an earmark.”

Still, not everyone agrees. Neither Taxpayers for Commons Sense nor Citizens Against Government Waste considered Kyl’s attachment an earmark. These things are apparently wide open to debate.

For example, while Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss agreed to oppose earmarks, he added that there could be exceptions: “There are times when crises arise or issues come forth of such importance to Georgia, such as critical support to the port of Savannah, and the nation that I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve funding.”

Democratic Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said if other politicians are jockeying for money, he will too: “As long as other states’ members are fighting for and getting money for infrastructure needs, then I will support a transparent, fair, congressionally-directed earmark process.”

Even Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., supports a “redefinition” of what an earmark is. For example, Bachmann is asking for federal support for a bridge in her district. “I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” she said.

Then there are those, Republicans and Democrats alike, who think forgoing earmarks altogether will simply give the president more power to direct more federal spending. For his part, President Barack Obama has suggested he would support the ban. But do any of them know yet what they are supporting?

Even though earmarks make up just 0.3 percent of the federal government’s budget, I think an earmark moratorium is a good idea if it leads to more meaningful money-saving measures. But when our congressmen and women are already finding a variety of ways to side step the new rule, then it’s not really a rule at all. And isn’t it odd how most of these problems defining earmarks didn’t arise until after the election?

Montana depends on federal dollars more than most states. It ranks fourth in the nation in federal money as a percentage of its state budget, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers 2009. Baucus, who has defended the earmark process, said that they are especially important to rural states that depend on “much-needed highway dollars, education funding and money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

It’s unclear which, if any, of these monies directed to each of these causes would be considered earmarks. And therein lies the problem.

The practice of earmarking has been corrupted over the years and, despite its benefit to Montana, should be weeded out along with other wasteful spending. But with so many exceptions, perhaps our federal politicians should first agree on what an earmark is before voting on a ban that may not ban much at all.