Earmark-reform movement gains momentum

//March 13, 2008

Earmark-reform movement gains momentum

//March 13, 2008

Business leaders applauded Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Pitts and Todd Platts for pushing earmark reform after the representatives announced a moratorium on the set-asides.

“We think government spending is excessive and out of control at the federal and state level, and earmarks is a big part of it,” said Tom Donley, president of the York County Chamber of Commerce.

Pitts represents Berks, Chester and Lancaster counties, and Platts represents Adams, Cumberland and York counties. The representatives have used earmarks to fund causes ranging from highway improvements to support centers for abused children. They declared a yearlong moratorium on their use of earmarks to highlight their argument that the process Congress members use to allocate money to pet projects needs an overhaul.

“The system is broken, and we need to reform it,” Platts said.

About 30 members of Congress have sworn off earmarks, Platts said. He is co-sponsoring a measure that would halt all earmarks while a committee studies changes. Platts also said he backs the idea of letting the president veto single earmarks without sinking an entire appropriations bill. House Democratic leaders are considering an outright earmark moratorium, Congressional Quarterly reported March 5. House GOP leaders demanded the move in a recent letter.

Platts estimated that he brings home about $1 million to $1.5 million annually in earmarks, in addition to some $38 million he secured in the last five-year federal transportation plan. Even without reforms across Congress, Platts said he would strengthen his own earmarking system, appointing local committees to scrutinize funding requests. That’s done now only with the highway funds he earmarks.

Donley said local representatives have been sparing in their use of earmarks, and he was willing to give up those funds. It would be better to replace the funds or to win them through an overhauled earmarking process, he said, adding that representatives from elsewhere “have been getting away with highway robbery for years.”

It’s clear the earmarking process is broken and something dramatic must be done to draw attention to the problem, said Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“The process doesn’t always make certain that the most needy or worthy project across the country gets the funding it needs,” Baldrige said.

Still, Baldrige stopped short of endorsing the moratorium, saying he did not know enough about the short-term impact on the community. He said he respects the representatives’ decision.

Not all earmarks fund bridges to nowhere. In fact, more than $10 million has been designated for a train from Lancaster to Harrisburg, said John Ward, president of Modern Transit Partnership, the group leading the Corridor One rail project.

“For a project like ours, that’s the only way we can get money, is earmarks,” he said. “All of a sudden, earmarks become bad. Well, probably 90 percent of them are very valuable.”

If federal agencies decided how to distribute all transportation funds, groups like his would never stand a chance against big-city transit systems, Ward said.

The tide is turning against earmarks, and representatives who refuse to bring home pork should not fear they will be punished at the polls, said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative economic think tank in Harrisburg.

“I think that the public is finally understanding the problem with earmarks,” Brouillette said. “I think that there has been an enlightenment that has been happening across the country.”

Brouillette compared earmarking with money laundering. Money is taken from the states, laundered through Congress and returned in the form of projects, he said.

“That money ought not to be extracted in the first place,” Brouillette said.

If the spending is legitimate, it should be done at the state or local levels of government, he said.

An aide to Pitts also called for earmark reform.

“The earmark process has been tainted and even corrupted by shady practices,” said Gabe Neville, chief of staff in Pitts’ Washington, D.C., office.

U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, a Democrat whose district includes Dauphin and Lebanon

counties, has not declared a similar moratorium. His office did not return a call for comment.