During a Senate Committee meeting on the massive water policy and projects bill for the Army Corps of Engineers, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) remarked that it would have been “more open and transparent” to have done the bill with earmarks. Yes, the waste in the bill would have been more clear, but certainly not better.
It's a common refrain we hear: Congress would be kumbaya-ing and work would get done, if a few bad apples hadn’t ruined a good thing for everyone.
Earmarks were a terrible way to allocate funding. Decisions were made on the basis of political muscle, not merit. Thomas Jefferson was very prescient about the problems with earmarks. In a letter to James Madison he wrote, “It will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.”
Yes, just prior to the moratorium, a little light was shone on earmarks: Congress identified sponsors, beneficiaries, and a stated justification. But simply putting information online doesn't make it transparent. We databased the thousands of earmarks to understand the scope and scale of earmarking. Congress didn't provide that. Besides, having to sift through thousands of earmarks is inherently opaque. It's like drinking from a data fire hose.
But back to the water bill. Water Resources Development Acts are periodically enacted bills that set policy for the Corps of Engineers and authorize new projects or modify existing ones. The last bill – in 2007 – authorized nearly $27 billion of spending. Authorized is the key term. A lawmaker once referred to an authorization as just a license to hunt; it doesn't guarantee that you bag a trophy (cash). But an authorization is the first step to getting funds for a project.
The problem is the old earmark system handed authorizations out like candy. The Corps now has a project backlog of $60-70 billion (they don't even know the total) of authorized projects not yet constructed. They get about $2 billion a year in construction funding. Their to-do list isn't getting finished anytime soon. Nor should it be. Many projects in this backlog are boondoggles from a bygone era. But Congress clings to nearly all of them.
Congress has to get the policy right. The backlog needs to be thoroughly scrubbed. Congress needs to establish a robust prioritization system that allocates funding based on merit and need. Congress should lay out specific criteria and metrics for evaluating proposed and existing projects, limit the number and type allowed, and the administration should come back with its assessment of what projects should be a priority for the Corps. We can't leave this problem entirely at the doorstep of Congress or the Corps, the Obama Administration has to engage (which they hardly have to date).
But that's not what the Committee did, they basically abdicated responsibility to the administration to pick projects. Furthermore, you can peel back the onion on this bill and see that even without earmarks, Sens. Boxer (D-CA) and Vitter (R-LA) prioritized their needs. There are provisions in the bill that would potentially green light a project in Louisiana where costs have soared from less than $1 billion to more than $10 billion while returning only 31 cents on the dollar. There's also a provision that stands to benefit the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by providing federal dredging subsidies for work that was previously the port's responsibility.
Congress can do better. We're $16.7 trillion in debt and have challenging infrastructure needs in this country. We need our lawmakers to stop feathering their nests and instead start designing a system that authorizes, modifies, and funds projects in the national interest. Earmarks didn't do that and neither does this bill.