The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to pass reform legislation to add greater transparency to federal spending.
The legislation, which passed 241-171, will require lawmakers to attach their names to earmark requests or federal funding for special projects. The transparency measure may dry up a growing source of federal spending for public education.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) defines an earmark as “any designation in the annual appropriations report which allocates a portion of the appropriation for a specific project, locale, or institution.”
According to the CRS, congressional earmarks have grown significantly over the past decade: from 4,155 in 1994 to 15,887 in 2005.
‘Pork Barrel’ Scandals
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a grassroots organization that advocates limiting government spending, applauded the measure.
“While there’s certainly more that needs to be done, these reforms will end the often-anonymous nature of pork barrel earmarks, and they’ll provide taxpayers, bloggers, and grassroots organizations like ours with more transparency so we can work together to fight waste, fraud, and abuse,” explained AFP spokesman Ed Frank.
Public concern about the federal spending process and pork barrel projects grew during the 109th Congress as several scandals came to light involving lobbyists, Congress, and government spending projects.
In March 2006, for example, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges. Among his crimes: receiving more than $2 million in bribes in exchange for directing government spending to projects.
The new transparency may affect education appropriations. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education’s annual budget included approximately $400 million from an estimated 1,175 Congressional earmarks.
In 2003, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported federal funds earmarked for American colleges and universities had exceeded $2 billion for the first time. Two-thirds of that funding came from the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, and Transportation. Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit organization that opposes pork barrel spending, pointed to significant wasteful federal spending on education.
“In the fiscal 2006 Senate Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations bill, there were 51 pork projects costing a total of $1.75 billion,” explained Tom Finnigan, a spokesman for the group. “The Department of Education received the majority of earmarks in this bill. Despite the fact that President Bush [proposed cutting] 48 projects from the Department of Education [budget], appropriators chose to ignore the majority of those cuts, returning funding to 25 of the programs.”
Bridges to Nowhere
AFP and other organizations concerned about high government spending hope the new transparency will continue momentum for limiting government spending, including education programs.
“In the past year, we’ve been able to block pork barrel earmarks for Bridges to Nowhere in Alaska, a Railroad to Nowhere in Mississippi, and other boondoggles,” Frank explained, citing examples of federally funded transportation projects that were proposed as Congressional earmarks. “With these reforms, we’re going to be able to fight even more wasteful projects like these in the future.”
“At the very least, taxpayers will know who to blame for the most outrageous pork projects,” Finnigan said. “Transparency will discourage members of Congress from directing earmarks toward campaign contributors and projects that benefit friends and relatives. This kind of abuse has become commonplace.
“Transparency will raise the bar for what qualifies for federal funding,” Finnigan continued. “This could have a trickle-down effect and encourage states to re-prioritize their budgets and not run to Congress for every half-baked idea. Earmark reform will end the secrecy that allows waste and abuse to proliferate. The end result is that federal money will be distributed more based on merit and less on political influence. It will also make it easier for watchdog groups, the media, and taxpayers to expose conflicts of interest and other shenanigans.”
Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
For more information …
Chronicle of Higher Education earmark projects database, http://chronicle.com/stats/pork/