Friends of the Earmark Make Themselves Heard
The hottest document on Capitol Hill is an anonymous six-page white paper that defends, of all things, earmarks -- those much-maligned home-state projects that lawmakers shoehorn into spending bills.
A growing number of politicians have decided to just say no to earmarks. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has vowed to veto any legislation that contains "pork-barrel spending." And several Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), have promised not to request earmarks anymore.
The trend worries many lobbyists (and some lawmakers), and they are beginning to fight back -- in other words, to lobby. Although a publicist initially told the Washington Post otherwise, the Ferguson Group acknowledges that it helped persuade three mayors whose cities it represents to praise earmarks in a Post op-ed Saturday.
But the widely read white paper -- "The Fairness of Congressional Earmarking in American Democracy" -- is the biggest counterattack so far. The only question: Who wrote it?
Speculation has run wild. Most believe the document was penned by a lobbyist eager to justify his or her profession. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark group, thinks it was produced by a college student (maybe the child of a lobbyist), judging by its simplistic approach.
Now the mystery can be solved -- at least partly. I have it on good authority that the author is a member of a little-known organization of former appropriations staffers called the 302(b) Group.
The group is named for the congressional instruction that gives the green light for appropriations committees to spend. A hefty 302(b) allocation, needless to say, is what appropriations staffers (and earmark lobbyists) live for.
The 302(b) Group updates its more than 100 members, most of whom are lobbyists, with the latest news on their topic of interest. Lately, that news has been dispiriting. Nearly 12,000 earmarks totaling more than $18 billion made their way into law last year. But that is unlikely to be sustained, given the bad publicity that earmarks have received -- from the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" to the activities of such infamous earmarkers as Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Thus the white paper. It contends that congressional earmarks distribute federal dollars more widely -- and by inference more equitably -- than government bureaucrats do. Non-earmarked spending is "less democratic," the paper says. It also asserts that earmarking has been a mainstay of federal budgeting since Rep. George Thatcher of Massachusetts won the first earmark -- $1,500 for the Portland Head lighthouse -- during the very first Congress.
Ellis rejects the paper's central argument. "Just because earmarks are more widely distributed does not mean they are more meritorious," he said. "In fact, the most powerful lawmakers are the ones who get the most money."
Congress rejected a moratorium on earmarks earlier this year, and no one expects them to disappear. "One of the big reasons lawmakers are elected to Congress is to bring things home to their states and districts," said budget expert Stan Collender.
In the meantime, the hunt will go on for the 302(b)er behind the white paper, and so will the pro-earmark lobbying campaign.