Earmarks serve a good purpose by ensuring good projects get their funding

Saturday, April 12, 2008

By Jo Ann Emerson

Many Americans have good questions about the congressional earmark process and what is often labeled pork-barrel spending. I start my response to Mike Jensen's recent column by insisting that there is no place for wasteful spending at any level of government -- even if it takes place in southern Missouri. The federal government in particular has a sometimes sordid record on this matter, both from irresponsible earmarking and reckless spending by executive agencies.

But this debate is ultimately over whether responsibility for government spending should rest with directly elected members of Congress or with political appointees and career bureaucrats at the Office of Management and Budget. Constitutionally, the power to spend federal funds resides solely with Congress. The president's budget is never mentioned.

I side with Congress, and I am wary of OMB, an agency insulated from accountability -- to the media, to taxpayers, to rural communities and to Congress. Even more disturbing is the fact that reductions in earmarks seldom (if ever) lead to less deficit spending by the federal government.

Members of Congress, on the other hand, can be good advocates for the districts they represent. If not for our ability to check and balance the executive branch by raising local issues, life would be very different in rural America. In the 8th District, for example, the only way to ensure the roads we need get built is to insert an earmark -- a guarantee the money will be spent for its intended purpose. Four-lane construction of U.S. 60 depends on earmarks for steel and concrete. OMB would never call this project a priority, and without federal funds it never would have happened.

Last year, funding ran short for dredging the river ports that facilitate the flow of manufactured and agricultural goods from our region to the rest of the world. OMB had arbitrarily decided that no ports north of Osceola, Ark., would be dredged. Incomprehensible. Congress was able to get creative, and I was able to ensure our transportation thoroughfares stayed open. OMB often picks winners and losers this way, with no regard for efficiency, need or real-world common sense.

The absence of earmarks exposes OMB at its most arbitrary. In fiscal year 2007 there were no earmarks. OMB directed funding from one vital transportation grant program to only five states. The previous year, when Congress was involved, funding was spread among 47 states.

Yes, the congressional role in government spending demands transparency and accountability. We must reject wasteful spending (the Appropriations Committee already rejects thousands of earmark requests each year). Still, Congress must keep this authority in order to prevent the consolidation of spending authority with another branch of government that is quick to shuffle rural districts like ours to the bottom of their lists.

Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau represents Missouri's 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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