Costly congressional earmarks make a comeback a decade after GOP ban

It’s probably a miracle the ban on Congressional earmarks ushered in by the GOP in 2011 lasted as long as it did. From the looks of it, members of Congress from both parties seem to be making up for lost time, funding some $130 million in pet projects in Minnesota alone.

Forum News reminds readers that what Americans for Tax Reform has called “the currency of corruption” was a dirty word not so long ago.

Earmarks, as they are called, are provisions in federal spending bills that directly allocate money for specific programs and circumvent the usual process where government agencies do so on their own guidelines. The practice fell out of favor due to excesses such as Alaska’s notorious “bridge to nowhere” project in the 2000s, and was seen by many as a symbol of waste in Washington.

Earmarks have been absent from spending bills since the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Now they’re back under names like “congressionally directed spending” and “community project funding.”

All but two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation — Republicans Rep. Michelle Fischbach and the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn — included earmarks for more than 70 projects in the $1.5 trillion omnibus bill signed into law this month.

About half, roughly $65 million, went to four congressional districts in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, all represented by Democrats. Republican Rep. Tom Emmer requested about $10 million in funding for water and road infrastructure in his district, which encompasses the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs and St. Cloud.

Northeast Minnesota Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, whose 8th District includes Duluth, the Iron Range and Brainerd, joined Klobuchar and Smith in backing a $5.8 million broadband expansion project in Pine County, $3.5 million for a wastewater treatment plant in Two Harbors, and $1.5 million for a day care center in Little Falls. He also got $3 million for a road infrastructure project in the Iron Range city of Virginia.

Try as they might, politicians still come across as defensive when explaining the reasons for pork barrel spending, thanks to the stigma still attached to earmarks.

“You can do it two ways. You can just put some money forward and close your eyes and hope it gets spent right or you can take accountability, you can take ownership over it,” Klobuchar said. “And I think it’s better to take ownership.”

The return of earmarks has faced criticism from fiscal conservatives, who say the practice is nontransparent and inherently leads to abuse and waste. Indeed, it can take some digging to find the provisions in appropriations bills. More than 4,000 earmarks in the March omnibus bill are in documents not directly part of the bill itself. Earmark opponent Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., circulated a 367-page list of earmarks to the media as he attempted to get directed spending cut from the bill.

Now that earmarks have returned to favor in Washington, Americans for Tax Reform has already posted a sample list of the most frivolous projects. No Minnesota earmarks made the preliminary cut, but then, there’s always next year.

$3,000,000 for the “Palo Alto History Museum” which will “showcase the legacy of innovation and remarkable heritage that are unique to Palo Alto.” The city is highly affluent and home to nine Forbes 400 billionaires. Why can’t this be paid for with local or private dollars?

$142,500 for Las Vegas bike-share bikes. The program “gives you access to some of the best restaurants, shopping and attractions in Las Vegas!”

$800,000 for “artist lofts” in Pamona, CA.

$3,000,000 for a Gandhi museum in Texas.

$496,000 for a local swimming pool in Yonkers, NY.

$3,200,000 for a local bike path in Rhode Island.

$2,000,000 for “Reducing Inequity in Access to Solar Power” in Delaware.