Earlier this week, the US Senate passed the administration's spending budget bill for the next year, the Omnibus spending bill in congressional jargon, but more often referred to as the "ominous" spending bill by many observers. Why that less than flattering label? Because despite the Obama campaign promises to ban all earmarks and the general condemnation of them heard universally during the last years of the Bush administration, this bill contained close to eight thousand earmarks... yes, that's right, eight thousand earmarks!
Earmarks are those terrible little pet projects that Congressmen and Senators add on to major legislation to "take care of the people back home" by getting money authorized for local projects that have a hopeful additional benefit of creating jobs and increasing prosperity back home where the voters live who determine the political future of those politicians who insert the earmarks. Earmarks started out as a little here and a little there, and then exploded during the Bush administration when Republicans, strong proponents of fiscal responsibility and strong attackers of "out of control" government spending, saw the light or the votes and set aside their principals for bridges back home. In some cases, so many earmarks were added to bills that they needed an additional funding authorization to fund the earmarks beyond the funding contemplated in the original spending bill itself.
But for the first time, earmarks attained national status as a presidential campaign issue when candidate Barack Obama made them front and center in his broad theme and mission to "change the way business is conducted in Washington" by promising to go "line by line" and eliminate them if he were elected president. And what's happened since the election, we now have the new administration's first budget spending legislation with no less than eight thousand of these earmarks.
Ironically, the budget spending bill is really the first genuine example of true bipartisanship in Washington promised by the new administration as Republicans are responsible for almost forty percent (40%) of all the earmarks in this bill, while the Democrats had to settle for sponsoring sixty percent (60%) of these personal pet spending projects, proving that indeed the two parties can indeed work together for the common good - or for someone's good.
Have earmarks been consistently condemned by leaders of both parties, including their presidential candidates? Yes! Have earmarks raised the ire of the media and become almost a breaking story of scandal when reported on? Absolutely! And has attacking earmarks become a sure way to win applause or approval by candidates seeking office and citizens' groups needing to build a base of support? You bet! And did President Obama renege on his promise to ban all earmarks and go line by line to eliminate them? Yes he did! So what!
What's all the fuss about? There's a reason why earmarks are a constant repeating issue in campaigns and political debates, and it's the same reason why they still keep showing up in legislation. Because people want them!
But it's a matter of interpretation. People want them if the project being funded is in their home town, but they oppose them if the project is clear across the other end of the country.
Recently, Wolf Blitzer on CNN highlighted a $900,000 earmark in Las Vegas for an environmental project that has the blessing of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Blitzer also highlighted a $900,000 earmark in Myrtle Beach, SC for a new convention center that's on the "must do" list of Senator Lindsey Graham of that state. And on the March 8th Sunday Meet The Press edition, New York's Senator Charles Schumer espoused the virtue of a two million dollar earmark to fund mortgage fraud investigations in Brooklyn, saying that he "could never have gotten the money now when it's really needed if he didn't do it as an earmark." And Lindsey Graham defended the Myrtle Beach convention center by saying "we're building an airport there and trying to make Myrtle Beach a thriving international city." And Harry Reid in Nevada has become so powerful and confident that he doesn't even bother to defend his earmarks anymore - he just puts them in.
So here's where we are. People really don't want earmarks, but they do want that project in Las Vegas, because that's not an earmark, that's something we need. And they do want the convention center in Myrtle Beach, because that's not an earmark, that's something we need.
And they want the mortgage investigation money in Brooklyn, because clearly that's not an earmark, it's something we need. But we don't need all those projects out on the coast etc, because those are just earmarks - but our project right here in our town improves the community, creates jobs, and makes America a greater country, even if it is a "bridge to nowhere." And that's how it works - and don't think for one minute that every politician in America, including President Obama, doesn't understand that.
Because the people really do want them, the politicians want them, and as President Obama is learning quickly, if the politicians want them, then in order for you to get their votes on stimulus packages, health care reform, education reform, and energy independence, you have to compromise and give them some of the things they want.
Mortgage fraud investigations are not crucial to people in Wyoming, who want to use their stimulus money for property tax cuts. So to them, Chuck Schumer's Brooklyn project is an earmark. And Lindsey Graham's convention center is not crucial to Chuck Schumer or to New Yorkers - where they already have a convention center so large that when you stay in a hotel in New York, they add a surcharge to your hotel bill to help pay for it - even if you don't know where the center is, let alone actually attending an event there.
And a project to help the environment in Las Vegas is not crucial to anyone who lives outside of Nevada, and is even less crucial if you're visiting and losing your shirt at the tables at Caesar's.
If the project helps me, then it's a crucial component to ensuring the future of my community. If the project helps you, then it's an earmark. And we don't need any more of those, so I'm against them. And I expect my elected officials to rail against them, as long as those same officials keep getting funding for the crucial projects we need right here in our town. And that's how it works. It will not change, and it raises questions for later discussions about whether if in fact things were not going to really change in Washington, was Barack Obama the best prepared candidate to deal and operate in an environment of "politics as usual" and disingenuous political maneuvering... just a thought for future reflection.
But our new president is one of the smartest we've ever had, and he learns quickly. So he will abandon previous campaign promises just as soon as he determines that only the old way will really work in Washington in order to get things done. Question to be asked is whether the American people will abandon him if he winds up having to abandon so many of his core campaign themes and missions.
Only time will tell. But one thing is certain. Earmarks will not be abandoned, as they are wanted, needed, and counted on. They are as American as apple pie, which turns out now may be bad for you!
Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio talk show host and commentator, and a national lecturer.