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Earmarks: Get 'Em While They Last
 

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Does your company need a leg up in the marketplace? Is the Navy's procurement officer giving your widgets the cold shoulder? Then act now -- it may not be too late to extract a favor from your Congressman. Though many legislators have removed the online "appropriations requests" from the constituent services sections of their websites, House Appropriations chairman Dave Obey (Democrat, Wisconsin) this week gave Republicans until March 19 to decide if they really, truly want a one-year moratorium on earmarks.

Republicans, you see, have been attacking the Democratic leadership for failing to reform the gluttonous practice of so-called Congressionally directed spending. In calling for the moratorium, Republican leaders declared, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "Pork-barrel spending has outraged American families and eroded public confidence in our institution. Both of our parties bear responsibility for this failure."

So true -- the Agenda, for one, is outraged. Republocrats are happy to shower their districts with dubious research initiatives and roads to nowhere, and force government agencies to buy goods that are neither needed nor wanted from their constituents. The New York Times recently reported that legislators from both parties have made it easier for said constituents to request these projects with on-line forms. In a four-page instruction sheet accompanying his form, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson offers this example for a submitter to parrot when making an official request: " '¶an additional $3,000,000 is provided only for the procurement of widgets for naval aviation training'¶.' "

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Earmarking made easy

That said, the Republicans' collective baptism on earmarks stands as a particularly stunning and brazen example of Washington hypocrisy -- and that's saying something. It was the Republican majority, after all, that turned earmarks into a multi-multi-billion-dollar enterprise, using the pork privilege as a mechanism to enforce discipline within the ranks. When the Democrats took charge of appropriations in 2007 they actually cut earmarks by 43 percent -- nearly in half, that is -- and still ended up at a whopping $9 billion in directed spending. (That's according to Obey. Taxpayers for Common Sense, however, counted $18.3 billion for fiscal year 2008, a 23 percent decrease from 2005.) And even as they call for a moratorium now, Republicans are sending earmarks requests to the Appropriations committee. One of the Republicans who introduced legislation banning earmarks, Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, privately told Obey that he, in fact, liked the system just the way it is. "You know, David, I am really for earmarks," Obey reports Kingston said. "Yes, Jack, I do know," Obey, in turn, responded. (Kingston confirms the conversation, but insists that while he supports the practice in theory, it's "out of control.")

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Earmarking made even easier

Thus, Obey's letter. According to The Crypt at Politico, Republicans were asked to check one of two boxes: either "the House should suspend earmarks for the year" or "the House should continue to provide responsible earmarks at a reasonable level." To Obey, silence means assent: he " will assume that any member not returning this form by [the March 19th deadline] wishes to see congressional earmarks discontinued and will therefore be submitting no requests for fiscal year 2009." He appears to have Pelosi's backing.

But who wants to bet that all this is anything more grandstanding? For one thing, it's not clear that the Senate will go along, and the two chambers will have to iron out their differences. More to the point, with a lame-duck, deeply unpopular Republican president and Democratic-controlled Congress, some say there's unlikely to even be a 2009 budget to serve as a vessel for pork stuffing, circumstances that make a moratorium much less punishing. So even if it's too late, or irrelevant, to submit an appropriations request for this year, it might be worth your while to make a campaign contribution anyway, and lay the groundwork for 2010.

Of course, many entrepreneurs argue that they need earmarks, especially to compete in the federal marketplace or to develop cutting-edge technologies that are too risky for the private capital markets. I'm curious to find examples -- really. If you're one of them, please send us a note and tell us your story. (If you'd rather correspond privately, send me an email.

Last updated: Mar 7, 2008




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