For many, earmarks, long synonymous with government excess, reached their breaking point when a couple of Alaskan congressmen tried to make taxpayers foot the bill for a "bridge to nowhere" five years ago.
And while most agreed that particular project had little value, other earmarks — or "congressionally directed spending," as they're officially called — aren't quite so black and white — especially when Northern New York has benefited from tens of millions of dollars in earmarks each year.
A Pew Research poll this spring said only about one in five Americans trusts the government, and nonincumbents are quick to cite earmarks as a prime example of what's wrong with Washington.
But congressional members who take earmarks defend the practice by arguing that they, more than a government bureaucrat, know what's best for their district.
The earmarks debate already has cropped up in races this fall, including the 23rd Congressional District, where Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, stands to bring home about $21.1 million for fiscal year 2011. Thirty percent of those earmarked funds are expected to go to one project: the construction of a secure "alert holding area" for predeployment equipment inspections at Fort Drum.
Mr. Owens said he judged earmark requests on their ability to create jobs and create "some broader impact on the community."
"A good example is the alert facility at Fort Drum," he said. "It does a very good, substantive action for the troops, but it also creates jobs because somebody has to build it. It also creates jobs because people have to supply materials for that building process. From our perspective, that was something that was very valuable."
Matthew A. Doheny and Douglas L. Hoffman, Mr. Owens's two Republican opponents, have said repeatedly that they would fight for any legitimate district request if they were in Congress. But both men have signed a pledge promising not to seek earmarks, even though the process has led to $114 million for construction at Fort Drum alone.
"We need open discussions and transparency on expenditures and not backroom deals where you scratch my back and I scratch yours," said Mr. Hoffman, a Saranac Lake accountant. "I'm going to fight to make sure that everything Fort Drum wants we're going to get, but appropriated through the normal funding channels."
Mr. Doheny, a Watertown portfolio manager, said earmarks have given members of Congress a legal, but unethical, way to reward their campaign donors.
Despite a push from House Democrats to prohibit steering earmark money to for-profit enterprises this year, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported in May that two local Democratic congressmen — Reps. Daniel B. Maffei and Michael A. Arcuri — circumvented that policy at least once in an instance that apparently was shaped by lobbyists. The newspaper said Mr. Owens did not engage in that practice, and the congressman confirmed that Wednesday.
"The whole process of earmark funding is flat-out broken, and Washington is corrupt because of it," Mr. Doheny said. "I will fight for every critical dollar for the district, but through the competitive process."
EARMARKS IN EXCESS
While earmarks are commonplace now, that wasn't always the case.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington, D.C., said there were a dozen earmarks in the fiscal year 1970 defense spending bill. By 2005, there were more than 2,000 in the defense bill, the organization reported.
The federal Office of Management and Budget identified 9,192 earmarks, totaling $11.09 billion, approved during fiscal year 2010. The number and amount of approved requests dropped sharply after 2005, only to recover some ground in 2007 before declining each of the last three fiscal years.
David E. Williams, a vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, has a theory for why what the group calls "pork-barrel spending" has decreased.
"The 'bridge to nowhere' was such a symbol of government waste," he said, noting with irony that the project actually never was funded. "It really coalesced in people's mind what was really happening."
In the resulting fallout, the House passed new measures to promote transparency, requiring a sponsoring member's name to be listed with approved earmarks and requiring members to post their earmark requests online.
Constituents were better informed, which Mr. Williams said forced House members to use more discretion when requesting earmarks. The number and size of earmark requests decreased, he said, "because who wants to put their name next to a teapot museum?"
At the same time, he said, members were "getting an earful" from informed constituents when they returned to their districts to hold forums and events.
"Members are like: 'I don't want to hear the grief anymore,'" Mr. Williams said. "They don't see the political return on it anymore. That's the change in attitude and that's why we're seeing a downward trend."
Whether it was for good policy or savvy political strategy, House Republicans said earlier this year that they would not seek any earmarks for fiscal year 2011. With a few exceptions, the minority conference has stuck to that position.
Stephen C. Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said there is some early evidence that suggests voters are picking reform-minded candidates.
Congressional incumbents have won 339 party primaries, or 98 percent, so far this year, he said. But of the 2 percent, or seven members, who lost, five took earmarks.
"The appropriators have 54 primaries out of the 346 races, which is 16 percent," he said. "But they are accounting for 70 percent of the losses."
Each candidate who pledges not to take earmarks and wins makes it harder for the earmark advocates to claim the public is content with the current system, Mr. Ellis said.
"Voters will decide whether or not the system is completely abolished," he said.
Mr. Doheny said he's "quite optimistic" that Republicans will take 40 seats in the upcoming election and regain the majority. It's his "hope," he said, that earmarks would be abolished when his party took control.
Mr. Williams said Republicans decried pork spending throughout the 1993 elections, but the number of earmarks increased every year the GOP was in power.
"Are we happy that they're saying that they're making a commitment? Yes," he said. "Do we trust them 100 percent? Absolutely not."
Mr. Ellis said "there is a significant portion of the Republican conference that wants to go back to earmarks." He said a compromise position for the party may be to add accountability and transparency to the process, but retain them.
CHANGING THE FORMULA
If earmarks aren't extinguished, the local Republicans' aim to fight for district funding through the budget process or competitive grant programs appears to be possible.
After the president proposes a budget, Congress comes up with a top line — how much it is willing to spend in the next fiscal year. That money is divvied up into big agency pots and then subdivided into smaller programming budgets.
There are two ways earmarks can be added, Mr. Ellis said. The president can request a certain amount for an agency and Congress can agree to more, with the difference set aside for earmarks. Or, Congress can agree to the president's figure, but slice out a portion of that funding for earmarks.
Mr. Owens said he never perceived earmarks "as adding to the budget, but rather something that, if you will, was carved out to be separately directed."
But Mr. Hoffman said that if earmarks were eliminated, Congress theoretically could reduce the size of its top line, which could make it easier to create a balanced budget that does not add to the deficit.
Mr. Owens said it's "not appropriate" to get rid of the earmark system because "frequently an individual member of Congress will know more about the needs of their communities and can focus, to at least a small degree, some benefit to their communities."
He also noted that earmarks represented less than 1 percent of the total budget last year, so their elimination "is a symbolic activity that may not have a lot of substance behind it."
Mr. Williams and Mr. Ellis disagree, with the former saying that Congress members have ample opportunity to talk to agency heads about the programs that benefit their community and make the case for it to be included in their budget proposal. The agency head then could weigh that project's merits against those of other projects lobbied for by other members of Congress and allocate funds to the most worthwhile ones.
"The only people who have anything to be afraid of are the people who have mediocre projects that are only getting them because of political power," Mr. Ellis said. He said the budget is a "zero sum game," so money set aside for projects outside the district is money that is not available for programs that benefit the district.
"Maybe Fort Drum should be getting more money than it is and other less worthy projects are siphoning money from Fort Drum," he said. "New York is not a powerhouse on the Appropriations Committee," which decides where to spend earmarks.
Mr. Williams said a congressperson's staff should help constituents find a competitive federal grant for a worthy project that wasn't funded through the budget process and then help them navigate the red tape instead of spending time soliciting and considering earmark requests.
While Mr. Owens has accepted earmarks, his staff also helps municipal leaders find competitive grants.
ROOM FOR INTERPRETATION
Mr. Hoffman said he was "the lone wolf" when he was the only one of three candidates in last fall's special election to advocate against earmarks. While Mr. Doheny's position mirrors his own, Mr. Hoffman said he's seen an evolution in his opponent's stance.
"In March, I had a debate with Matt Doheny in Fulton County and he debated for 15 minutes about how great earmarks are," he said. An Amsterdam Recorder reporter who covered the event that night reported having the same impression.
Mr. Doheny said Thursday that Mr. Hoffman is "sorely mistaken or lying about my position" and that he's "dead set against earmarks."
In April, just before Mr. Doheny signed the Citizens Against Government Waste's "No Pork" pledge, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise quoted him as saying he'd like to see earmarks abolished, but "until we can get rid of them altogether, I'm not going to unilaterally disarm."
The newspaper reported that he advocated for a transparent process if earmarks were to be used and said the appropriations should go toward core government functions, such as infrastructure improvements, and for projects important to municipalities.
Alison M. Power, Mr. Doheny's spokeswoman, said Friday that his reference to not unilaterally disarming in April spoke to his commitment to "fight to ensure that the 23rd continues to receive federal funds for core government functions through the normal budgetary processes."
Mr. Owens, who has stayed out of the Republican fracas, said he'd argue that as a majority member, he'd "have the ability to bring home a higher level of funding" if Democrats retain the House and keep earmarks. His estimated $21 million in earmark funding is on par with that of his Republican predecessor, who served 17 years in Congress, the final year as a minority member.
RACE TO THE FINISH LINE
Each Sunday leading up to the election, the Watertown Daily Times will analyze the issues and races that shape the 2010 elections.
■ Today: Earmarks
/ Sept. 12: National security, terrorism and border issues
/ Sept. 26: Energy policy
/ Oct. 10: Economy, small business and agriculture
/ Oct. 24: Health reform and senior issues
■ Sept. 5: 118th Assembly District
/ Sept. 19: 122nd Assembly District
/ Oct. 3: 47th and 48th state Senate Districts
/ Oct. 17: 23rd Congressional District
EARMARKS IN THE CAMPAIGN
23rd Congressional District
It appears Democratic Rep. William L. Owens will be as successful in obtaining earmarks as his Republican predecessor, John M. McHugh. As of Wednesday, Mr. Owens had had $21.13 million of his requests approved, including $6.7 million to construct a dedicated area for predeployment equipment inspections at Fort Drum. Mr. McHugh secured earmarks totaling the following these fiscal years:
■ 2010: $24.7 million
/ 2009: $22.6 million
/ 2008: $18.86 million
25th Congressional District
Former Rep. James T. Walsh used his position on the powerful Appropriations Committee to steer cash to his district, which includes Rochester and Syracuse. The Republican raked in earmarks totaling the following these fiscal years:
■ 2009: $67.9 million
/ 2008: $52.26 million
Rep. Daniel B. Maffei, a DeWitt Democrat who was elected after Mr. Walsh retired but did not take his seat on Appropriations, secured:
■ 2010: $18.1 million
20th Congressional District
When she represented this eastern district including Saratoga Springs, Democratic Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand raked in earmarks totaling the following these fiscal years:
■ 2009: $23.8 million
/ 2008: $36.8 million
Democrat R. Scott Murphy, Glens Falls, was picked in a special election in March 2009 when Mrs. Gillibrand replaced Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate. He secured:
■ 2010: $6.09 million
24th Congressional District
Democrat Michael A. Arcuri's earmark allocations have not changed significantly since he was elected to replace retiring Republican Sherwood L. Boehlert in this Central New York district. Mr. Arcuri, Utica, secured earmarks totaling the following these fiscal years:
■ 2010: $23.1 million
/ 2009: $25.9 million
/ 2008: $28.1 million