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Bad Earmark, Good Earmark

An earmark is a legislative device for directing money in a larger piece of legislation toward a particular project. An earmark is not a negative thing in itself, any more than laws are inherently negative. It’s important to make the distinction between good earmarks and bad earmarks.

Let’s take a look at this by way of example.

The roads of Atlanta, Georgia are some of the most infamously congested in the nation. The way that the city has sprawled out instead of being built up has led to this problem, but it’s too late to demolish the metropolitan area and start all over again. Atlanta’s airport is also troubled. Thought it was rebuilt not too long ago for the sake of hosting the Olympics, it already can’t handle all the flights it receives very well.

The solution: A Chattanooga choo choo – a high speed rail line that goes from Atlanta to Chattanooga to Nashville. The City of Chattanooga is considering taking part in such a route, but needs assistance with the money required for the preliminary steps in considering the project. Congressman Zach Wamp has therefore created an earmark to provide $750,000 to Chattanooga to help get things started. I don’t like Zach Wamp’s politics, but I have to admit that this is a worthwhile earmark.

In Pennsylvania, the West Manheim Township Park and Recreation Board thinks it would be lovely if it could build a 113-acre baseball park with two deluxe fields, each equipped with a dugout, a backstop, a scoreboard, and “specialized infield dirt”. Congressman Todd Platts has suggested that the federal government pay $250,000 for the huge sports complex, saying that it will “will provide a safe outlet for the activities of the local youth population.”

Do kids really need specialized infield dirt and big scoreboards to play a game of baseball? Of course not. Give them a 3-acre field, a baseball bat, a ball, and a big cardboard box to cut into four bases, and the game will be every bit as good. After years of huge budget deficits, in a time of a terrible general economy, the Platts baseball earmark is wasteful spending.

Then there’s the earmark presented last week by Ohio’s ultraradical Representative Jean Schmidt. Schmidt asks for nearly a million dollars from the federal government, explaining that the money will be used “to continue SAFETEA-LU High Priority Project (Ohio #3234) and FY08 and FY09 appropriations to improve IR275-SR32 Interchange in the Eastgate area. Improvements (Local Network Improvements-Segments IV and IVa) include Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Studies (PE/EIS) and related activities to develop and construct projects consistent with appropriate federal project development and ODOT requirements.”

This explanation gives us a general idea about how the money would be used, but it’s written in a vague way that leaves huge loopholes for unaccounted spending. Schmidt also completely fails to explain why the transportation project she wants funding for, whatever it actually is, deserves money from the federal government. Maybe the project is worthwhile, but it’s impossible to tell. For that reason alone, Schmidt’s earmark ought to be rejected.

One thought on “Bad Earmark, Good Earmark”

  1. Dr. Theopolis says:

    $750,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what it would take to make ANY progress on high-speed rail. Saying it’s a good earmark presumes it’s well-spent.

    $750,000 with no plans for lots more to follow sounds like something likely to get blown on consultants, conferences, people taking each other out to nice dinners, etc. without even the foggiest of a practical consensus on how to move forward coming out of the whole thing.

    Unless some very good, detailed stipulations for expenses and anticipated outcomes were worked into this earmark, which was slipped into an existing bill to avoid scrutiny…

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