Some in Washington seem to believe that the way our nation currently funds infrastructure projects is the only way. For example, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) told Politico:
Let’s look at transportation. How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences.
But as the chart to the right demonstrates, the federal government’s dependence on earmarking as THE method for allocating transportation funds is a very recent development. The Heritage Foundation’s Run Utt recently detailed to The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott: “Until 1984, earmarks in transportation appropriations bills averaged about three a year …the 1982 bill included just 10 earmarks, while 1987?s authorized 152. Back then they were called ‘demonstration’ projects, today they are called ‘high priority’ projects, indicating that the process has corrupted even the language.”
So our federal government managed to fund transportation for over two hundreds of years without using today’s corrupting earmarking process. It is possible. But all that changed in the 2000s. A 2007 Department of Transportation Inspector General report requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) found that between 1996 and 2005, DOT earmarks increased in number by 1,150%, and in value by 314%. According to Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Members of the 111th Congress requested almost 40,000 earmarks worth $131 billion.
Earmarking defenders love to claim that they are not that big a deal since earmarks do not create new spending; they only legally require the federal agencies to prioritize some projects over others. There are two problems with this: first, earmarks are often used to buy votes for other increased social spending (there is no Obamacare without the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, or Gator Aid). Second, when politically powerful politicians in Washington earmark money for their favored projects, they are necessarily simultaneously stealing it from other projects. For example, Utt explains how the federal highway program works:
In the most recent six-year reauthorization of the federal highway program (SAFETEA-LU), Congress and the President agreed to spend $286 billion between FY 2004 and FY 2009 on federal highway and transit programs and established annual spending limits. Congress also reconfirmed that the amount allocated to each state would be determined by the same mathematical formula that has governed the program since its creation in the mid-1950s. With each state’s financial apportionment set by formula, most of the money for the 7,000 to 8,000 earmarks listed in the bill must therefore come out of each state’s allocation. Thus, if a member of the Nevada delegation succeeded in getting a $2 million earmark to build a bicycle trail in Elko in 2005, then that $2 million would be taken out of the $254 million allocated to the Nevada Department of Transportation (DOT) for that year, effectively reducing the state’s discretionary spending on its own priorities by that amount.
One of the reasons why earmarks are included in spending bills even though they provide no additional money is that they allow lobbyists and Members of Congress to preempt a state DOT’s investment priorities. The state may otherwise have concluded that a new lane on a congested highway in a Las Vegas suburb would be more beneficial than a hiking trail, but earmarks allow Washington players to overrule that decision and reallocate the money to other purposes while pretending that the earmark represents extra money.