Minnesota lines up at the trough as earmarks make a comeback

When the Democrat-controlled Congress resurrected earmarks earlier this year, the Grand Forks Herald reminded readers of why the poster child for wasteful government spending was abolished in a bipartisan effort back in 2011.

The House Appropriations Committee in February and March put together guidelines for Community Project Funding, but the program is probably better known by another name: “earmarks,” the system by which members of Congress are able to ask for money for specific projects in their districts. It was designed to point federal money toward critical infrastructure projects, but also, in some instances, meant millions in wasteful public spending – Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” for instance – and, in one case, bribes in exchange for government contracts.

The only catch? Members of Congress must post online the details of the up to ten earmarks they will be allowed to submit for potential funding. Some local government officials already awash in more federal coronavirus aid than they know what to do with seem overwhelmed with the amount of government giveaways.

The present day earmarks for which Grand Forks is asking are part of an “embarrassment of riches” for the city government there, City Administrator Todd Feland told Grand Forks City Council members earlier this month. Community Project Funding, a renewed surface transportation bill, an infrastructure spending plan, and a recent round of coronavirus aid could mean millions upon millions for the city and Grand Forks County.

“Earmarks in the past were a fantastic way to build collaboration among congresspeople, they had to work with one another to bring the pork to their district,” council member Bret Weber said. “This seems like just some guaranteed pork for your district, and we’ll find out what that’s all going to look like.”

There’s no “bridge to nowhere” on Duluth’s $44.5 million list of pet projects. But there is a bridge. The city wants $12 million to spiff up the historical lift bridge “even though no imminent problems are expected.” Two more proposed earmarks on the city’s wish list also stand out–a $5.8 million request for an energy efficiency, renewable energy and electric vehicle charging demonstration project and $22 million to upgrade gender-equity accommodations for firefighters and update fire stations.

Mayor Emily Larson told the Duluth News Tribune the proposals were the best of some $260 million in potential earmark spending under consideration.

“As an elected leader, I’m thrilled that they’re back. There is no guarantee that we will see these dollars,” she said. “I’m not thrilled because I just know we’re going to get everything we ask for. But I love that there is the ability to allow for some regionality and some specificity, whether it’s in a county or a municipality or some geography that is very specific to that need.”

But the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste warns that earmarks represent anything but the public good.

The members of Congress who agreed to restore earmarks are willfully ignoring or have forgotten why this corrupt, inequitable, and costly practice was first subject to the moratorium…

…They will once again engage in the legalized bribery that causes members to vote for excessively expensive spending bills that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few earmarks worth a few million or sometimes just thousands of dollars.

As the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained regarding those making the case for a return to earmarks, “The problem with all their arguments is:  the more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in.  Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”