By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer
Earmark reform sounds like a librarian-backed movement to stop people from dog-earing the pages of books.
But the initiative actually focuses on the way members of Congress spend money.
Critics call it “pork-barrel spending,” or the financing of “pet projects.” The legislators who use the process, including New Hampshire’s delegation, agree the system needs fixing but defend their right to continue appropriating – or “earmarking” – money to this state.
“It’s not where it needs to be, but people have begun to focus on fixing the problems,” said U.S. Sen. John Sununu. “People understand it needs to be transparent, and (understand) the need to look at additional checks and reforms.”
That focus has become sharper only in the last two years. In 2007, New Hampshire’s delegation helped Congress pass reforms aimed at making the appropriations process more transparent.
The measure included the requirement for lawmakers to disclose the earmarks they sponsor, thereby allowing the public to track whether they receive campaign contributions from earmark recipients. Until then, almost no one knew where the money went and how much money recipients donated to campaigns.
Earmarking occurs when Congress annually prepares spending bills for the government’s various agencies. Legislators allocate funds to those agencies, but also take some of the pie by earmarking money to projects – some justifiable, others not – back home.
Before Congress instituted reforms, legislators appropriated money with little oversight.
A $223 million “bridge to nowhere” that aimed to connect an island of 50 people to the Alaskan mainland was budgeted as an earmark until public outcry scrapped the project.
And in recent years, a half-dozen lawmakers have come under Justice Department scrutiny over earmarks, including former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who sits in a federal prison for pressuring Pentagon officials to award contracts to people who gave him more than $2.4 million in bribes.
Unlike some lawmakers who have largely refused to earmark, New Hampshire’s legislators use the process, warts and all. They say if they didn’t earmark, the state’s environmental, law enforcement and educational programs would lose available federal funds to other states.
But New Hampshire’s two House members, Democrats Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter, set earmark policies upon taking office in 2007.
The freshman legislators won’t accept donations from anyone affiliated with the earmarks they sponsor. This ban includes the recipients and the lobbyists who represent them.
Sununu, a Republican, voted earlier this year for a one-year moratorium on Senate earmarks, but the amendment failed, with 71 senators in opposition. Pointing to the argument that the state would otherwise fail to capitalize on available federal money, Sununu said he wouldn’t practice the moratorium on his own.
“At the end of the day, there will be fewer earmarks as long as the process is more transparent” and holds members accountable, he said.
U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican and member of the appropriations committee that forwards earmark requests to a full floor vote, rejected the moratorium.
But in 2007, Gregg proposed an amendment that would have given the president a modified form of a line-item veto, potentially allowing for a reduction in earmarks. The amendment never made it to a floor vote.
Gregg said he recognizes the flaws of the process, but believes there are better ways than moratoriums to improve it.
“There are earmarks that can’t be justified,” he said. “The way to address it isn’t to eliminate earmarks but have absolute transparency. Have the person accept the responsibility when taking money . . . have their name attached to the expenditure so (Congress can review) if it does or doesn’t make sense.”
If an earmark under this sort of scrutiny seems inappropriate or wasteful, legislators and the public can complain about it, Gregg said.
Hodes requested, along with other members, a one-year earmark moratorium in the House, but a measure there failed, as well. In the meantime, he said he could at least refuse donations from anyone connected to earmarks.
“I don’t want there to be any appearance of conflict of interest between projects I request and campaign contributions,” Hodes said. “I’m hoping my example helps.”
Other legislators have joined Hodes and Shea-Porter in following this policy. But some observers, while encouraged by improvements already made, believe many members of Congress can’t bring about complete change because of the many benefits of earmarking.
“It’s a such a win-win situation for everybody,” said Anthony Nownes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “The legislator gets to tell his or her constituent that he or she quite literally brought home the bacon, the lobbyist gets to tell his or her client that they did the same thing and the constituents get all the goodies.”
Copyright, 2008, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.