'Earmarks' by Another Name: Democracy

By Dannel P. Malloy, Robert Duffy and Mark Mallory
Saturday, April 26, 2008

A couple of months after Officer Michael Briggs was killed in October 2006, the police department in Manchester, N.H., informed the city that the federal program that finances police officers assigned to target street crime and reduce open-air drug sales had not been funded for the next fiscal year.

New Hampshire's senior senator swung into action on behalf of Operation Streetsweeper: Judd Gregg (R) obtained a congressional earmark for $846,000 to support state and local law enforcement priorities in New Hampshire. Previous federal funding of Operation Streetsweeper was cited as one reason that violent crime in Manchester dropped 17 percent from the first half of 2006 to the first half of 2007. Thanks to the new funding, the 11-year-old program continues.

Although the House and Senate have both defeated a moratorium on earmarks, the debate about direct congressional grants rages on. And generally absent is any mention of the pressing needs that these grants have helped so many of our nation's communities meet.

Are programs to reduce gang violence a good use of taxpayer funds? How about keeping sewage out of local streams? Or fixing unsafe roads and bridges before another tragedy?

By any reasonable standard, nearly all congressionally directed grants would be considered a good use of taxpayer funds.

Local officials nationwide have a common goal: providing residents with public services in the most cost-effective way. Local governments' primary source of funds is the taxes citizens pay.

In addition to local taxes, Americans send more than $1 trillion in federal taxes each year to Washington to fund projects that localities cannot undertake alone: building highways, providing for defense and so on. Some federal programs are designed to return a portion of that tax revenue to local governments to help them serve their residents.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, for fiscal 2008, members of Congress secured more than $10 billion for non-defense projects in their districts.

Most of that money will be spent on infrastructure improvements, economic development initiatives, public safety enhancements and environmental cleanups -- projects that serve a public good and will benefit the citizens, whom lawmakers were elected to serve.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, such congressional grants do not increase federal spending but only help to guide how this funding is directed. For fiscal 2008, Congress held to the total discretionary spending caps that President Bush demanded. So congressional grants did not add one dollar to federal spending or to the deficit.

Earmarking has become a controversial issue, but it is really about what mechanism we use to return federal tax dollars -- money raised from people in cities and towns all over the country -- to communities to benefit those who paid the taxes.

As mayors, we are keenly aware that our three cities have directly benefited from congressional earmarks -- whether they protect low-income children from the hazards of lead paint or revitalize urban waterways -- as have most towns and cities in the country.

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