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Commentary-Losing Ground On Earmarks



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Losing Ground On Earmarks

By Ryan Alexander

When the Homeland Security department (DHS) was created in 2002, lawmakers agreed to keep this important agency’s spending bill free from political earmarks.

As in the Defense Spending Bill, the stakes are too high to put parochial pork barrel priorities before the security of the homeland. Funding border protection, transportation security, terrorism preparedness and disaster response, shouldn’t and wouldn’t be decided because of who has the most political power or electoral need.

Until this year, that is.

While earmarks have been chopped overall — there are 25 percent fewer by our measure — Homeland Security earmarks have skyrocketed. The Fiscal Year ‘08 bill had 128 earmarks worth $424.5 million.

Take, for instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) predisaster mitigation program. It is pockmarked with pork this year. On its website, the agency says that the program is to “save lives and reduce property damage” by providing funds “for hazard mitigation planning, acquisition and relocation of structures out of the floodplain” and other projects and activities that would reduce communities’ exposure and risk in future natural disasters. This program has traditionally awarded grants on a competitive basis using a 70-page guidance document that details several requirements and evaluation criteria to help ensure only the most crucial and well-conceived projects are funded.

In 2007, the program received $100 million to fund competitively awarded projects — no earmarks. In the Fiscal Year ‘08 Homeland Security bill, predisaster mitigation got a boost, receiving $114 million, but also was tied up with 95 earmarked projects worth $52.0 million. Politically vulnerable lawmakers and Appropriations Committee members got the biggest chunk of change, when the money is really needed for vulnerable communities and towns facing powerful future disasters. Members of the Appropriations Committee or House leadership pulled down 50 of these earmarks worth $37.1 million and 17 freshman Democrats found their names next to $3.4 million worth.

In this case, pork was not partisan, as 55 percent of the $52 million in earmarks went to the majority and 44 percent to the minority (one earmark was bipartisan). Vulnerable veteran members in both parties, like Representatives Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), picked up earmarks as well.

Representative Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, got three separate earmarks worth $1.3 million to “make improvements to public property to minimize negative consequences that could follow a natural disaster” in the City of Rye and Village of Rye Brook, and to conduct “detailed evaluation of the vulnerability” in the Village of Elmsford as well as Westchester and Rockland Counties. Planning for disasters and reducing their impact is what predisaster mitigation is all about, but communities in the district of a powerful appropriator shouldn’t be able to get to the front of the federal spending line.

Another project that certainly wouldn’t have made the grade is a $200,000 earmark that Representative Sam Graves (R-Mo.) got for a nine-siren tornado emergency warning system in Smithville, Mo. FEMA’s predisaster mitigation program clearly states, “warning and alert notification systems, sirens, and other communication systems” are “not eligible” for funding (emphasis added).

Congress has increased transparency and chopped the total number and dollar amount of earmarks. That should be applauded. But we also need to move toward allocating more federal funding on a competitive award basis, across the entire budget. By earmarking more than $400 million of our Homeland Security money and almost half of the FEMA’s predisaster mitigation program, which used to be earmark free and competitively allocated, Congress has taken a step backward in reforming the system of political earmarks.

(Ryan Alexander is president, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog.)

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