12/21/2010 03:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Unspinning Congressional Earmarks

There may be more spin and less candor about Congressional earmarks than any other aspect of federal spending. Tea Party activists, anti-government organizations and 'born again' fiscal conservatives are quick to spin every earmark as "pork." Unfortunately, the news media contribute to the spin by echoing their message. Pork-barrel spending stories are easy and don't require much thought. There are always a few outrageous examples of earmarked funds, or at least, that sound outrageous. Voila! Everything Congress does is branded as self-serving and corrupt.

The problem is most of what people know about earmarks is what they hear and read in the media. It's a problem because so much falls short of fact. In the interest of accuracy, it's time to do some "unspinning":

Political Spin: Congressional earmarks are the reason we have a federal budget deficit.
Fact: Congressional earmarks amount to approximately .5% (Yes, that's point five %.) of total annual federal spending. In the current Omnibus Appropriations Bill before Congress, earmarks are about 1% of discretionary spending.

Political Spin: Congressional earmarks add billions of dollars to the federal budget.
Fact: Congressional earmarks are not added to a federal agency's budget. They direct funding to specific projects within the amount authorized for a federal government activity. By the way, since 2006, the total dollar amount has been cut in half.

Political Spin: Federal agencies are better qualified than Congress to decide where federal dollars should be spent.
Fact: Not unless you believe that federal officials in Washington have a better handle on local area needs than local officials. Most local earmarks are the result of extensive discussions over funding priorities between Members of Congress and their city, county and state officials.

Political Spin: All Congressional earmarks squander public funds on unnecessary projects.
Fact: By definition, a lot of annual appropriations, including funding for military construction, highways, defense and scientific research and the Corps of Engineers, assign federal dollars to specific projects. There is simply no more logical way to direct funding, which, when done right, matches local needs with available federal funds. The new Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia would never have been completed without earmarked federal funds. Thousands and thousands of people drive across this 'pork barrel' every day.

In others, funding has been earmarked for specific projects of national scope, such as the defense research that led to the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, used so effectively in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Funds were earmarked for the urgent manufacture of Mine Resistant Armor Protected Vehicles (MRAP's), credited with preventing hundreds of U.S. Marines from being killed or injured by roadside bombs in Iraq. Pork?

Political Spin: Earmarks are nothing but payback to friends and campaign contributors.
Fact: Nearly all earmarks go to local and state governments, colleges and universities, hospitals, public transit providers, public water agencies and other accountable local bodies. Both the House and Senate require that every earmark include the name of its Congressional sponsor and certification that neither they nor any relatives will benefit.

Political Spin: Congressional earmarks are slipped into appropriations legislation anonymously and behind closed doors.
Fact: Democratic House and Senate Rules require that earmarks must be added to appropriations bills before their first subcommittee hearing and well before they come to the House or Senate floor for a vote. And further, every earmark request made by a Representative or Senator must be published on their web site before the appropriation bill is first heard in subcommittee.

Political Spin: Congress should forgo all earmarks and simply fund the President's budget request.
Fact: Which earmarks should they forgo? Every Administration budget proposal contains billions in presidential earmarks. Fox News listed 102 Administration earmarks in the 2009 stimulus bill totaling $4.8 billion. There was not a single Congressional earmark.

Political Spin: Congressional earmarks violate our Constitution and the intent of the founding fathers.
Fact: Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States places all responsibility for making decisions about spending public funds with Congress. And, in fact, there have been Congressional earmarks since the 1st United States Congress in 1790, when Rep. George Thatcher, who represented the Maine District of Massachusetts, earmarked $1500 for a lighthouse on Portland Head, with the support of President Washington.

There is no doubt that the Congressional earmarking process has been overused and misused in last 20 years. But the problems are with the process, so fix the process! It will be difficult, however, as long as spin and demagoguery, with no analysis or explanation, are reported as fact.

When the public really understands what earmarks are -- the good and the bad -- then attention can be focused on keeping the earmarking process open and honest.