Earmarks: Congress Mulls Return of Practice that Enriched Alaska

In Sen. Ted Stevens’ day, Alaska thrived on earmarks, the congressional practice of directing federal dollars to home-state projects. Lawmakers agreed in 2011 to end the tradition, in response to public outrage over projects such as Alaska’s so-called “bridge to nowhere.” To this day, nearly every account of alleged excess features as Exhibit A  the bridge that would’ve connected Ketchikan to its island airport.  But now, there’s serious talk in Washington of bringing back the earmark.

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“I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters at the Capitol last week. “Keep in mind that’s what the country has done for more than 200 years.”

Democrats aren’t united on this. President Obama opposes earmarks. Reid says he doesn’t care.

“I disagree … with Obama on earmarks,” Reid said. “He’s wrong.”

Among Republicans, the issue is also divisive. GOP senators debated it during a policy meeting last week. Opponents say earmarks are wasteful, while advocates say they may be the grease needed to break Congressional deadlock. Alaska’s congressional delegation, though, is solidly pro-earmark,  with both senators on the Appropriations Committee, where most of the earmarking used to happen. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the stereotype is that earmarks fund obscure projects in the dark of night. More typically, she says, a city council passes a resolution supporting a project and asks for her help.

“And they come to us, and we put it on our Web site,” she said. “And then people say ‘well surely that’s something that you would advocate as their representative back here in Washington, D.C.’ But did you know that’s called an earmark?”

At least, it is if the lawmaker writes it into a bill. Now, Congress just sends money to the government agencies, and they decide what projects to spend it on. So lawmakers who want to press for a project routinely contact agency chiefs to make their case. Murkowski says it amounts to earmarking in secret: “When you go through the back door, that’s, I believe, taking you back to the days of the deal done in the dark of the night in the smoke-filled room.”

There are other  ways around the ban. A New York congressman, for instance, didn’t direct any money to a ladder manufacturer in his district, but in a defense bill last week, he essentially orders the Army to brief Congress on the benefits of “carbon fiber ladders.”

Sen. Mark Begich says earmarking doesn’t bust the budget. It only directs money within a budget.

“You know, we’re closest to the people in a lot of ways and understanding the needs, and I think to have us as part of the process is important, and earmarks allow the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Alaska Congressman Don Young, in effect, made earmarking a household word by setting aside big money for the Ketchikan bridge a decade ago. He says the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and Congress should use it.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my party,” he said in an interview late last year.  “I frankly think they had their head in the sand, when they said ‘We can’t have earmarks. We have to balance the budget.’ We transferred that power to the president.”

But Speaker of the House John Boehner told Fox News this week, as long as he’s in charge, the ban stays.

“I started this effort in 2006, to get rid of earmarks,” the Ohio Republican said. “We are not going back to the nonsense that went on before then.”

So far, Washington’s inertia seems to be in Boehner’s favor on this one.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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