Earmarks all about advocating

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Earmarks bring millions of dollars into Clark County, pay local wages, fund research and development of defense projects and support crucial local infrastructure. As I wrote last week, they deserve more credit than they get.

But are they fair? Are they good way to pass a budget? The way they’ve been handled, it’s easy to see why they’ve gotten such a bad name.

Many have been handed out in secret, with no way to know which elected leader handpicked which pet project. A healthy democracy requires open government.

Earmarks often name a specific company’s project. An open bid process would be more fair.

And earmarks dole out government money inequitably, with powerful politicians securing more funds for their constituents than less connected officials. That helps Washington, where Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, have good committee seats. Though earmarks cost $31.28 per American, we got $42.03 per Washington resident back in 2010. Good for us. Not so good for donor states that pay for more than they receive.

But earmarks are just one of many ways that senators and representatives advocate for their home districts. Much of the money that’s been allocated to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge came without earmarks. But they might not have come without Murray, who as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation committee doesn’t need earmarks to affect road spending.

Matt McAlvanah, Murray’s press secretary, believes that it’s better to let politicians fight to get earmarks for their districts than to leave all spending decisions to federal agencies. “When you don’t have earmarks, a lot of the times bureaucrats make decisions,” he said. Washington, D.C., bureaucrats don’t know what’s best for Washington state residents, McAlvanah said.

Some earmarks are egregious, and those should be done away with. But if you believe it’s appropriate for the federal government to contribute to the cost of roads, policing, defense research and power grid improvements, then you probably back a good portion of the projects that earmarks support.

If you are against this kind of federal government spending, earmarks are the least of your worries. Cutting them completely would have saved the country about 1.1 percent of the money it spent last year. The U.S. would have still spent an estimated $3.5 trillion. But the folks we elect to represent us would have had less of a say in where it went.

Bridge to somewhere

Before I sign off, I’d like to correct an error from last week’s column, when I mischaracterized Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Although Gravina Island, at one end of the proposed bridge, has only 50 residents, it houses the only airport in that part of the state. The bridge — which drew controversy because of an unspent $223 million earmark — would have allowed more than 13,000 people to drive to the nearest airport, instead of rely on a ferry. Thanks to retired Alaska State Trooper Robert F. Nesvick Jr., formerly of Ketchikan and now of Vancouver, for setting me straight.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.