Growth in earmarks limits agencies’ flexibility

Increase has been driven by the budget-neutral practice of directing agencies where to spend money, without boosting funding.

In the war against congressional earmarks, Pete Luisa is a conscientious objector. As the head of the Army Corps of Engineers' civil-works program development office, Luisa doesn't understand all the fuss about "pork-barrel" projects. In fact, he likes them.

"For our situation, I can't say that [earmarks] took away from anything" in last year's appropriations bill, Luisa said. President Bush requested $4.3 billion for the Corps. The House upped the ante to $4.7 billion, the Senate raised it to $5.3 billion, and the two chambers "compromised" on $5.83 billion, adding almost 500 projects to those the administration proposed.

So the Corps, which builds and maintains dams, flood-control projects, and ports, got enough money to fund its own priorities and those of lawmakers as well. "We feel comfortable that we can satisfy an awful lot," Luisa said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been benefiting from that type of additive earmarking for decades, and it drives anti-deficit groups nuts. But the recent growth of earmarks -- from 4,126 specific designations in 1994 appropriations bills to 15,268 such requests in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service -- has been largely driven by a more budget-neutral practice: telling agencies where to spend their money, without increasing their funds.

This practice, say officials in executive departments and agencies, is beginning to have a huge effect on their ability to set national priorities. And complaints from these officials are adding to the pressure to reform earmarks, especially in the wake of the criminal convictions of former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., and lobbyist Jack Abramoff for steering congressional favors to clients.

Take the Economic Development Administration, for example. Its mission is to spur growth in areas "experiencing high unemployment, low income, or other severe economic distress," in the words of one EDA brochure.

In fiscal 1998, the agency got $340 million and had two broad earmarks: for trade adjustment assistance and for timber and coal states. In 2002, the budget was $335 million, with Congress emphasizing timber, coal, New England fisheries, and industries affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement, particularly trade with Canada.

For the current year, the EDA's funding fell to $251 million but came with many more congressional directions on how to spend it. The conference report included at least 20 specific earmarks, including funding for the Gateway Economic Development District's business creation and expansion program in the Montana counties of Broadwater, Meagher, and Lewis and Clark; for the Mississippi Delta; and for Development Projects Inc. in Dayton, Ohio.

These are considered "soft" earmarks because they include no specific dollar amounts. But the agency has learned not to ignore them.

"The more that we are constrained by specific report language or legislative needs, the more difficult it is for us to address the sudden and severe and ongoing needs across the country," said Sandy Baruah, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for economic development and the head of the EDA. "We would like as much flexibility as possible."

The agency attempts to respond to major problems, such as plant and military base closings, Baruah said. An earmark "usually means that a project that might have provided a greater economic impact did not get funded." He added, "We don't apply political pressure in Washington, and we would appreciate if Congress wouldn't either."

In the past, Baruah said, his agency was not a big target for earmarks. But the EDA has increasingly suffered from congressional nibbles as the number of earmarks in the Commerce, Justice, State, Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill -- the one containing the Economic Development Administration -- jumped from 253 in 1994 to 1,722 in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.

And in addition to the specific projects that Congress designates for EDA funding, the appropriations bills include "ongoing" earmarks. Every year, Congress directs the agency to take care of folks affected by economic hardships in Northwest timber states, in coal-burning states, and in the Alaska fishing industry.

It is no coincidence that former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., was from a Northwest timber state, ranking Senate Appropriations member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is from a coal state, and former Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens is from Alaska.

Federal officials who administer competitive grant programs are also chafing under increased direction from Congress. In a January analysis, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that while research-and-development funds have stagnated, R&D earmarks have soared 63 percent since 2003.

"Congressional appropriators make it their first priority to secure earmarked funds to ensure that at least some money goes to their districts, at the cost of dramatically reducing competitively awarded funds," the analysis concluded.

The drastic increase means that members of Congress -- rather than experts in the Energy Department or the Pentagon, for example -- set research priorities. "The topical areas of these earmarks might be very different than the topic areas that an agency might come up with," said Kei Koizumi, director of the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program at AAAS.

Earmarks have drastically increased at the Agriculture Department, for example -- up 38 percent from just last year, according to the study. But for 2007, the department is attempting to take a stand. Last year, the USDA's Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service was the target of $196 million in earmarks; for next year, the department is projecting no such designations.

"Our budget is reallocating earmarks to reflect our higher-priority needs," said department spokesman Ed Loyd. He cites avian-flu research as one area that needs more money.

Department officials prefer competitive grants to earmarks because the grant process allows peer review, as opposed to congressional review, said Susan Frost, who was a senior adviser to Education Secretary Richard Riley in the Clinton administration. She added, "The problem with the competitive grant process is that you have to have enough money to compete."

She cited an Education Department program for postsecondary education that last year shut down its grant competition because all of its funds were earmarked. "I think the people who had to administer [earmarked programs had] a fair amount of frustration," Frost said. "In those cases, you simply were doing what you were told."

The Bush administration has asked Congress to enact a version of the line-item veto that would pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court, unlike the line-item authority that President Clinton briefly exercised before the Court ruled that it violated the constitutional separation of powers. But since most earmarks are spelled out in committee reports, not in official legislation, officials at executive departments and agencies could claim the power to ignore them. They haven't -- because Congress protects its prerogatives carefully and would likely react harshly the next time the independent-minded officials come to Congress with their hands out. Four years ago, the Bush administration attempted to crack down on earmarks in the fiscal 2003 budget and called on Congress to cut the number of pork-barrel projects. In the Commerce Department budget, for example, the administration said, "congressional earmarks for noncompetitively awarded projects divert resources that could more effectively meet the mission of the department." But the anti-earmark campaign did little but strain relations between the appropriators and the administration, and the White House did not push the issue in negotiations over appropriations bills. This year, Congress seems to be acknowledging the reform pressure created by the Cunningham and Abramoff scandals. The House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee this year is limiting members' requests for earmarks to five apiece, according to instructions sent to lawmakers earlier this month.

This is the first time the subcommittee has attempted to restrict member requests, according to panel spokesman John Scofield.

Of course, the subcommittee -- one of 10 on the House Appropriations panel -- could still be swamped by 2,175 requests. And senators are likely to demand an equal share of the booty.

Members of Congress are in the best position to make judgments about how to spend federal money, Scofield asserts. "Elected members going home every weekend know what the needs of their districts are better than someone stuck in an office in Southwest D.C.," he said. "The power of the purse rests with Congress."

And, appropriators note, department officials who are unhappy about legislation that ties their hands can try to persuade the president to exercise his veto. That hasn't happened yet during the Bush administration.

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