Congressional earmarks under Obama

Congressional earmarks under Obama

A ban on earmarks has closed the doors for otherwise unwise federal spending. This is said to have been ordered by President Obama in the $825 billion economic stimulus bill that is apt for voting. Until it becomes a law, no one yet knows what formulae may have been laid down on how funds so appropriated will be spent. Bottomline, it is presumably designed so that funneling money to pet projects will be a little bit difficult for lawmakers, interest groups, even lobbyists.

As we all know, only Congress provides such funds or earmarks for projects or programs based on allocation process largely being determined by the congressmen themselves thereby curtailing the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage the funds.

The case of US and RP come from the same mold – our legislative traditions being carbon copy of the West. As defined, earmarks are funds under congressional direction since by tradition, they have become discretionary spending. Now, Obama appears set to make federal spending transparent such that there will be a system that will let the public track exactly where the stimulus money goes. Democrat lawmakers, it is said, even devised an elaborate oversight system that can review how such monies are spent.

In the Philippines, the same is true. Congressmen are always heard to say – they have no hand on how the money is being spent because precisely, a department or office is being designated as the implementing agency for every kind of project or program – not the congressional office itself. But on the ground, we know that congressmen actually do have a more than direct hand since it has become of public knowledge that they derive commissions, kickbacks, and ‘goodies’ from their so-called soft and hard projects.

Will the ban on earmarks be able to make government accountable on how money is being used? This, at the very least, is the intention on Obama’s ban to an infamous practice known as ‘earmarking’. It shall give professional lobbyists in US a hard day figuring out ways and schemes to grab a share of the money for the supposed-to-be clients. What exactly are the new rules if they are said to have been configured indirectly than directly?” Call to mind that superlobbyist Jack Abramoff gave earmarks a bad name and he was in fact imprisoned in the 2004 scandal. It gave spending committees the euphemism – to be dubbed as “The Favor Factory”.

As a result, not few lawmakers themselves are doing the rounds – lobbying from governors, state and local officials who have a say or hand over the funds so they can have a bite of the budget pie. Certainly, $825 billion must cause some trickle-down-effects over their respective cities or districts and constituencies. Everyone now await how the formula will look like and how they can grab an opportunity for themselves for some monies to be parceled out in their favor. This much is known – that some $358 billion will be for road, water, energy programs and others such as transportation projects in high-unemployment areas.

Certainly, members of Congress have a wish list or have outlined their project priorities. Under the ban, one observer thinks that there will be ‘a lot of projects that are not going to pass the smell test” which means that under the modified formulae, some projects that are supposed to be tracked may have to be listed in some uncharacteristic legislative language so as not to invite suspicion from the public. Fact is, projects may have to be listed not in terms of detailed specifics but in more generalized terms. Otherwise, one might be searching where that proverbial “Bridge to Nowhere” could be verified.

The US Conference of Mayors had likewise some $150 billion in so-called “ready-to-go” projects that quickly became fodder for criticism. Or so because it included money for Miami water park and a skate park in Portland, Maine? On the other hand, another group, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials eyed some $64 billion for projects not remotely mentioned thus making it difficult to criticize any item in the list.

Not few believe, no matter what happens, Obama’s earmark ban could always be circumvented. Lobbyists can in fact skirt the ban however way it goes – upfront, transparent to secretive or non-specific. Understandably, this ban has been Obama’s response against earmarking that has run the whole gamut of federal spending. The US economic meltdown has been traced to overspending that has characterized the American psyche. Further, it is said that congressional earmarks and pork-barrel spending have undermined state local decision-making, this according to Dr. Ronald Utt.

To think that pork-barrel spending in US is over a hundred year old – what further harm can it do vis a vis a global economic crisis sparked by the richest country in the world? Aside from a well-defined appropriation for Members of Congress as it is with the Senate, our Filipino lawmakers can have the best of both worlds – pork barrel funds as one and ‘earmarks’ or appropriation bills as another. Earmarks in the context defined brought about the recurrence of so-called ‘payola’ for bills wherein government has some high stakes and where private sector has stakes, lobby money which oftentimes cannot be “smelled” is the name of the game.

All told, we wish Obama can start right a work in reconstructing America and pull it away from an almost predictable economic sinkhole. Ironically, we have heard the government of PGMA asked for the same stimulus bill. I thought Executive Secretary Ermita said Obama will learn a lesson or two from PGMA? In the case of Philippine Senate, the closest example we can give of a congressional earmark would have been the P200 million appropriation for the C5 – appropriated not once, but twice. So who says RP is lagging behind in congressional earmarks, pray tell?

UP Diliman, Quezon City