Earmark ban in Congress may hit state

December 12, 2010
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When U.S. Rep.-elect Tim Walberg returns to Washington in January after a two-year hiatus out of office, the Capitol’s anti-earmarks mood will be far different than he experienced there before.

That’s because the incoming GOP majority in the House agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks, the controversial process in which members of Congress designate specific home-state projects for funding rather than leaving the selection to federal departments and agencies.

During the Tipton Republican’s first term, he sponsored or co-sponsored 44 earmarks for the 2008-09 fiscal years, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The group is a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that opposes “wasteful and corrupt subsidies, earmarks and corporate welfare.”

Democrat Mark Schauer of Battle Creek, who beat Walberg in 2008 but lost re-election in November, sponsored or co-sponsored 18 requests during his two years in office. His six solo requests included $400,000 for a public health dental clinic in Hillsdale and $450,000 to improve the terminal at an airport in Coldwater.

Earmark critics say the practice encourages political favoritism and waste of public funds, while supporters say it gives Congress greater discretion on how tax dollars are spent.

Oakland University political scientist David Dulio said hometown projects play an important role in helping incumbents keep their seats.

“For decades, members of Congress have relied on their constituent service to deliver votes for them at the polls,” said Dulio, who is working with colleague Peter Trumbore on research into 2002 and 2004 campaign ads.

Incumbents use the ads to tout the benefits they’ve brought to their districts — “and they’re not ashamed about it,” he said.

Such advertising may claim, “I fought to save jobs at this plant or this base, or I fought to bring this or that project and it’s benefited you in terms of 4,000 jobs,” Dulio said. “It’s a common practice.”

However, eliminating earmarks alone won’t automatically reduce federal spending if overall appropriations aren’t also cut.

“The irony is that doing away with earmarks does hardly a bit of good for the federal budget picture because it’s reducing so little,” Dulio said. “If the Transportation Committee writes an authorization to spend $50 billion, somebody’s going to have to direct that or divvy it up or send it to a particular place. It may be the Transportation Department.”

Walberg was the sole sponsor of four earmark requests totaling $2.8 million, including mass transit projects in Jackson and Marshall.

Walberg and Schauer were by no means alone among Michigan Democrats and Republicans, Taxpayers for Common Sense data shows.

On the GOP side, Rep. David Camp of Midland sponsored or co-sponsored 18 requests totaling $7.9 million for 2008-10, including five as solo sponsor. Among them was $250,000 to replace buses for the Big Rapids Dial-A-Ride-program.

Requests can cross party lines. For example, Camp joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow in asking for about $1 million for transportation projects in Clare County. Meanwhile, Republican Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, jumped in with Levin and Stabenow on a number of requests, including money for airports in Pontiac and Lansing, a water treatment plant in Mason and a Lansing Community College job training initiative.

In Southwest Michigan, Rep. Fred Upton, R- St. Joseph, sought more than 30 earmarks for 2008-10 with a potential $33.2 million price tag. He was the lone sponsor of nine requests, including $142,500 for the St. Joseph County Transportation Authority and $150,000 for Lake Michigan College.

Earmarks can be bipartisan, including times when members of both parties jointly push presidential earmark requests. For example, retiring Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, Walberg and re-elected Rep. John Dingell, D-Trenton, were among the co-sponsors of multimillion dollar earmarks that President Barack Obama wanted to construct barriers on the Chicago River to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes.

It remains difficult to predict the actual impact of the impending GOP-led moratorium on House-sponsored earmarks because the Senate hasn’t adopted a similar policy. The Senate will have a smaller Democratic majority in January, but even some GOP senators still support the earmark practice.

Eric Freedman, former capital reporter in Lansing, is an associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University. He oversees the school’s Capital News Service program.

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