Transportation Earmarks Perspective
by Randal O’Toole
posted in Antiplanner Blog, News commentary, Transportation
Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, is against earmarks. But not when it comes to transportation. “Advocating for transportation projects for ones district in my mind does not equate to an earmark.”
Georgia Republican Representative Jack Kingston agrees. “How do you handle [transportation] without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill?” he says.
I don’t think these people got the message last month. Here are a few pertinent points about transportation earmarks.
1. Earmarks are relatively new. The federal government has been handing out transportation money for at least 80 years, but there were virtually no earmarks in transportation bills before 1982. Somehow, transportation managed to work without earmarks for at least 50 years.
2. Earmarks are, almost by definition, a waste of money. Since the feds give money to the states only after the states write plans determining that the money will be spent as effectively as possible, earmarks are only needed if the member of Congress who puts in the earmark wants the state to build something that the state thinks isn’t worthwhile. Some 80 percent of earmarks are for projects that are not on state priority lists; the other 20 percent didn’t have to be earmarked.
3. Because federal earmarks often only partially funds a project, and because the states didn’t want to do those projects in the first place, about half of all earmarks never get spent. (Which actually allows members of Congress to create more earmarks than it has money to spend.)
Here’s the rub for the states. If Congress puts an earmark in one of its hexennial transportation authorization bills, and the state doesn’t spend the money, Congress can rescind the earmark in the next reauthorization bill and the state keeps the money anyway. But if Congress rescinds the earmark between reauthorizations, the earmark goes into the general pot. So states want to keep the earmarks, even for projects they don’t want to build, at least until the next reauthorization.
All this is just more evidence that our government has become too big to effectively manage. Our goal should not be to just end earmarks or stop a few subsidies, but to reduce the size and scope of federal programs in transportation (and many other fields). Otherwise it is too easy for members of Congress to hide behind arcane rules and traditions.