Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Earmark Spending Shrouded In Secrecy

Yesterday I posted a very good, insightful article on the issue of earmarks and the problem they are causing in our nation.

Monday the Chattanooga Free Times Press had an article that touched on that very same issue:

The Cumberland County Playhouse ; a Kingston, Tenn., bike trail; and a sewer system outside Crossville, Tenn., all might receive federal money this year thanks to a request from the congressman in that district.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, DTenn., is seeking to get more than $52 million for 22 projects in his district, which includes Marion, Sequatchie, Grundy and Bledsoe counties, into next year’s federal budget.

With ethics reform on the congressional agenda following recent Washington lobbying scandals, Rep. Davis said the public should see his budget requests, called earmarks.

"I am proud to be fighting for these opportunities for my district," Rep. Davis said. "When lawmakers set aside dollars for road projects or for economic development in their district, I support that. But I oppose earmarks for lobbyists who are representing some special interest group."

Though earmark requests are not public record, Rep. Davis joined two other Tennessee lawmakers — Democratic Reps. Jim Cooper and Harold Ford Jr. — in providing a glimpse of the annual grab for federal dollars. Together, they are seeking more than $575 million for more than 125 projects in Tennessee.

The state’s eight other federal lawmakers either declined to release or did not respond to requests for the list of Tennessee projects for which they are seeking federal funding.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said making public the thousands of funding requests he evaluates would not be beneficial.

"To have that in the press would result in outside lobbying during a decision-making process," he said. "That would thwart my ability to get objective information and make a decision."

REQUEST REVIEW Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he vets each request to ensure its legitimacy, such as last year’s $2 million for runway repairs at Chattanooga’s airport. The majority of the requests he receives are from local governments seeking transportation and infrastructure improvements, Rep. Wamp said.

"In a lot of cases what is classified as pork can really be called beef because they are legitimate federal responsibilities," Rep. Wamp said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said it makes sense to have people familiar with their states participate in funneling dollars to where they are needed most.

"A senator from Idaho or a senator from Georgia would be a more reliable person to designate funds than a bureaucrat in Washington would be," Sen. Isakson said.

Rep. Cooper’s spending requests include more than $43 million for Vanderbilt University and more than $40 million for projects that would benefit the Tennessee Air and Army National Guards.

Rep. Cooper rejected some requests, including $8 million for advanced multivitamins for troops, $1.5 million for 36 additional parking spaces at a Nashville airport and $800,000 to build a headquarters for the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee.

A PRIVATE PROCESS Rep. Cooper said the earmark process is out of hand, and transparency is the only way to squelch the potential for abuse.

"Congress has become an alcoholic on spending, and, like many alcoholics, we are in denial and making excuses," said Rep. Cooper, who listed his earmark requests on his Web site. "We are handing out pork like we were raised on a pig farm."

Last year Congress greenlighted 12,852 earmarks worth more than $64 billion. In 1994 there were 4,126 such funding requests at a cost of more than $23 billion, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Not all earmark requests are funded during Congress’ complex budget process.

Critics say with earmark requests confidential, the process of congressionally directed spending is too shrouded in secrecy.

"We think of this as a democratic process," said David Williams, vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "But the appropriation process is so closed, so ‘good old boy’ network."

Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said requests for project funding are considered private correspondence between the committee and the senator making the request.

All congressional correspondence is exempt from freedom of information laws, Mr. Williams said.

Both Senate and House Appropriation committees have blanket rules against releasing spending requests.

Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who pleaded guilty this year to bribery, called congressional committees that oversee spending bills "favor factories."

While condemning the proliferation of earmark requests in recent years, Sen. Frist said recently passed ethics legislation should reverse that trend.

All four regional senators in March voted in favor of a lobbying reform bill. It states the Senate will not consider any measure unless a list of included earmarks, their sponsors and an explanation of the earmarks’ "essential governmental purpose" is made available to both lawmakers and the public at least 48 hours prior to debate.

"The problem is they are being dropped into bills at the last minute where the senators who are voting on them do not have the opportunity to study, debate and reflect on their opinions," Sen. Frist said.

The House ethics bill, passed this month, includes similar legislation and states that earmarks must be in either the original Senate or House bill.

The bills are in conference committee, where lawmakers will hammer out differences

As you can see, Congressman Ford is on top of the issue of earmarks. Ford has set an example that all members of Congress should follow.

John Boehner and the Republicans could learn alot from him.

Read about Congressman Ford's great record on earmark reform here!