Some Claim Losing Earmarks Means Losing Connection with Constituents

By Chris Wilkerson, staff writer – February 29, 2012

A few proud lawmakers are trumpeting a new era in Washington with a comprehensive transportation bill that contains no earmarks and significantly reduces the number of duplicate transportation programs.

The rest of the lawmakers in Washington are wondering how they are going to explain to their constituents that they signed an expensive transportation bill that does not include any specific local projects.

This is the conundrum of the earmark-free transportation bill. Political candidates have been beating each other over the head with the line “my opponent voted for the bridge to nowhere” since the last time Washington passed a transportation bill in 2005. But those bridges in their home districts are how the bills got passed.

Since 2005, Congress has been passing extensions to the bill without doing much to overhaul a bloated system. [1]

The new bill has Washington abuzz because earmarks have been the lubricant that helped move a massive piece of spending through the system, according to David Goldberg with Transportation for America, an advocacy group. “It was the way that members of Congress bartered for support on policy provisions as well as funding allocations,” Goldberg told Politico. [2]

Without earmarks, it becomes more difficult for a lawmaker to stand in front of a bridge or highway overpass and say, “I got this done.”

The 2005 transportation bill had 6,300 earmarks in it – that is almost a dozen per lawmaker.

Some lawmakers, like House Speaker John Boehner, have long prided themselves in abstaining from the pig trough earmark culture in Washington. [3] He has been pushing Washington to a more merit-based bill-writing system instead of “scamming the system for pork,” as FoxNews.com blogger Chad Pergram put it.

Freshman Republican lawmakers are energized and enthusiastic about an earmark-free Washington. Many won their seats promising that pork politics would die on their watch.

Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican from Minnesota, unseated former transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar in a close election in 2010. “It’s a paradigm shift in what we do. Now we have states decide,” Cravaack told Politico.

Without earmarks, control of infrastructure spending from the Department of Transportation’s budget goes to the states. Veteran lawmakers worry that means surrendering power to the President’s office.

Republican Alaska Sen. Don Young supports the earmark-free bill, but he is clear that it has flaws. Without earmarks, the Federal Highway Administration will decide for itself where money gets spent. Young, who co-wrote the “bridge to nowhere” legislation in 2005, thinks Congress should decide where the federal dollars get spent.

An earmark is defined by the Senate as a lawmaker-requested project that diverts money from the regular, formula-driven methodology that is typically used to award projects. [4]

For his part, President Barack Obama also has pledged to not sign any bills that contained earmarks. The public pressure to remove pork from spending during the past few elections has been intense.

Most in Washington agree that without earmarks, the Department of Transportation will give more power to individual state transportation departments and the Obama Administration.

“I’ve always said that the anti-earmark crowd is actually pro-Obama,” West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall told Politico. Rahall is the transportation committee’s ranking Democrat.

The House version of the bill has been put on the operating table in the face of protests over funding the bill and its total cost. Boehner is helping to make the House bill more supportable.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill, which also contains no earmarks, has the support of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and, by extension, the Obama Administration.

Transportation funding has been complicated during the past decade as fuel efficiency has increased. Since the Highway Trust Fund mostly gets money from the gas tax, revenue declines as efficiency goes up, according to the Washington Post. [5] There is even a movement to change the way highways are funded and begin charging people for how many miles they drive instead of how much gas they buy. [6]

Current highway funding expires on March 31. LaHood is not expecting a comprehensive bill to pass before then, so he is expecting a short term funding extension, according to the Washington Post.

In addition to abandoning earmarks, some lawmakers want to consolidate or eliminate up to 70 programs. [7] Rep. John Mica of Florida is the House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman who brought forth the controversial House bill.

The bill targets redundant programs like the Indian Reservation Roads Program and the Transit on Indian Reservations Program, and consolidates them into the Tribal Transportation Program. The bill also would eliminate programs that do not serve a federal interest, according to Mica, like the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program and the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, otherwise known as the Rails to Trails program. [8]

Some of the eliminated programs could always be picked up by individual states.

Like the congestion many of the department’s programs are designed to eliminate, the bill would streamline decision-making and cut out redundant bureaucracy throughout the system.

The proposal drops the number of programs in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from nine down to four. The Federal Transit Administration gets its programs cut in half from 20 down to 10. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shrinks from 12 programs down to three. Lastly, the Federal Highway Administration would slim down from 61 programs down to only 18, according to the bill summary.

Under the House bill, states would not be required to spend federal highway money on non-highway projects.

The House bill also would extend the railroad industry’s deadline to install new rail technology that could reduce the number of crashes due to human error. The technology, called positive train control (PTC), was supposed to be installed on certain tracks by the end of 2015. The extension gives the industry until the end of 2020, according to ProgressiveRailroading.com. [9]

The technology is required on certain tracks that move through densely populated areas or tracks that carry particularly toxic loads. The House bill gives the railroad industry a few more years to either install PTC or come up with another crash-mitigation strategy.

Sources
[1] http://transportation.house.gov/news/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=1513

[2] http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0112/71914.html#ixzz1nbq7rnr9

[3] http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2012/02/24/mastering-art-french-cooking-and-passing-legislation

[4] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/feb/26/earmark-ban-facing-a-fight-over-definition/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/post/white-house-pushing-senate-transportation-bill/2012/02/27/gIQAEAkrdR_blog.html

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/05/AR2010020504790.html

[7] http://transportation.house.gov/news/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=1513

[8] http://republicans.transportation.house.gov/Media/file/112th/Highways/2012-01-31-Final_Rollout.pdf

[9] http://www.progressiverailroading.com/federal_legislation_regulation/news/House-transportation-bill-includes-PTC-deadline-extension-RRIF-program-changes–29756

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