Congress shows little appetite for pork as earmarks become dirty word in American politics
When the electorate soured on political pork two years ago, some local and state governments lost a critical source of federal investment. Yet Congress appears to have little interest in resurrecting earmarks, the method it used to pay for some home projects.
“I understand why earmarking got a bad name,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, whose budget depends on federal funding for transportation and infrastructure projects. “Some folks abused the process, and spending became out of control.”
The 113th Congress, which convenes in January, won't get to restore the secretive process.
Republicans in the House and Senate implemented a voluntary freeze on earmarking. Senate Democrats, who control the upper chamber, are expected to replicate the moratorium. Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh Valley authored a ban, and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri joined him to push for a moratorium.
Rep. Mike Kelly, a Butler County businessman and Republican first elected in 2010, vows he'll remain committed to reducing spending in a way that gets at the root of the crisis, “which includes but goes far beyond the issue of earmarks,” he said.
‘Back door' funding
The public's distaste for pork-barrel spending — that is, money directed to a project or program in a district without a competitive process or executive oversight — reached its height around 2010, when the conservative Tea Party emerged. Earmarks have been the bane of government watchdog groups.
Though earmarked dollars made up just 2 percent or less of the federal budget, “they have now become a dirty word in American politics, especially during these times of huge budget deficits,” said Jeff Brauer, an expert in city planning at Keystone College.
“It is funding that has gone through the back door,” he said, often added as a rider to legislation or “used to make legislative deals.”
Earmarked money sometimes went toward seemingly absurd uses, such as $1.9 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, $188,000 for the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, or $460,752 for beer ingredients — three 2008 projects.
In suburban Philadelphia, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, acknowledged waste in the past but lamented the loss of earmarks.
“The answer should not be to abandon support of state and county governments,” said Shapiro, a former state House member. “The answer is to reform the process so taxpayer dollars are protected, there is transparency in the system, and critical local projects ... receive federal support.”
Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said local governments now look elsewhere for federal dollars to help pay for legitimate projects. The county got a $10 million grant through the Department of Transportation to help pay for a ramp from the Rankin Bridge to the former Carrie Furnace site along the Monongahela River, which might be developed into a park.
“These types of projects attract jobs and families to the region,” Fitzgerald said.
Earmarks — and later, stimulus money — enabled the federal government to give 80 percent of the $523 million light-rail extension to Pittsburgh's North Shore. Despite controversy over the project's value, Fitzgerald said: “I'd like to see that extended to the North Hills or the airport, but I don't know if that can happen without earmarks.”
The price of popularity
In their home districts, where local governments often struggled with tight budgets, lawmakers became popular because of earmarks, Brauer said. Cities and counties relied upon earmarking to upgrade infrastructure.
“Voters tend to only think earmarks are wasteful when they are given to another state or district,” Brauer said.
Pennsylvania has gotten its share of pork over the years.
The late Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, marked more than $100 million for a regional airport in Cambria County that bears his name.
Retired Rep. Bud Shuster of Everett, former GOP chair of the House Transportation Committee, became known as “the King of Pork,” directing money to a four-lane highway in Central Pennsylvania named for him.
Thirteen-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Scranton, lost his seat in 2010 and faced questions over millions of dollars he steered to a family-owned business.
Johnstown Mayor Thomas Trigona acknowledged that his city prospered under Murtha. But, Trigona said, the Johnstown area is doing all right in the new era.
In February, Toomey and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton teamed to try to save the National Drug Intelligence Center, which Murtha earmarks built in Johnstown; it closed in June. The city seeks grants elsewhere for such things as firefighting equipment, Trigona said.
“It is a very transparent process, and good government is a good thing,” he said.
But lawmakers have established special funds in spending bills that give them discretion to help pay for projects to their states or districts.
“These slush funds have made the process even less transparent than before,” said Brauer.
That practice and the fear of giving too much spending power over to the president have some legislators, including Republicans, rethinking the moratorium on earmarks.
Shuster's son, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, the incoming Transportation chairman, said he'd consider “something like earmarks” to pay for repairs to the nation's aging infrastructure.
“We have to figure out a transparent way to fund much-needed projects,” Shuster said.
Salena Zito is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She canbe reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.