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Earmarks miss the mark - Tom Purcell

The USA Today article almost caused me to drive off a bridge to nowhere.

Our government can't even squander our money efficiently -- particularly where earmarks are concerned.

Earmarks, says FactCheck.org, "are government funds that are allocated by a legislator for a particular pet project, often without proper review."

Often slipped into large authorization bills -- or the 13 appropriation bills that fund the federal government every year -- earmarks tend to be concealed.

Though they account for roughly $20 billion a year in spending -- a pittance in our roughly $4 trillion budget -- some argue they are dangerous, because they can be used to persuade legislators to support massive bills that do spend serious money.

Such as last year's stimulus and health-care bills.

In any event, here's what USA Today's exhaustive investigation found: Our government can't even spend earmark dough efficiently.

Money set aside to fund some 7,374 congressional earmarks has not been spent in full -- and dough set aside to fund some 3,649 earmarks hasn't been spent at all.

Why? There are some legitimate reasons -- a state may have canned a project, for instance -- but in many cases it is bureaucratic red tape.

USA Today cites one example in which an Ohio congressman drafted a $375,000 earmark to "improve State Road 31" in Columbus when he meant to fund "U.S. 31." His minor error has tied up that earmark dough for 13 years -- and counting.

Botched earmarks are so widespread, says the paper, that one of every three highway dollars earmarked since 1991 -- some $13 billion total -- is still tied up.

But the red tape gets "better" yet.

Even if a particular state has not received a penny from botched earmarks, those earmarks still count against that state's share of federal highway funds.

USA Today offers an interesting example of how this works.

When President Obama was a U.S. senator from Illinois in 2005, he earmarked $1 million for a highway underpass in Chicago. Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, then a congressman from Illinois, earmarked $928,000 for the same project.

But state and local governments had begun building the underpass BEFORE Obama and Emanuel slipped in their earmarks -- and earmarks can't be used AFTER a project has been approved.

Though the earmarked $1.9 million could not be spent, Illinois saw its share of federal highway funding reduced by a corresponding $1.9 million that year. Rather than bringing their state nearly $2 million, Obama and Emanuel cost it nearly $2 million.

The USA Today report on earmarking sheds light on an idea that is simple common sense to many: Why the heck is our federal government meddling with so much?

Lots of highways and bridges are in need of repair across America. It is governments' role to fund them.

But ought not state and local governments be making these decisions?

Why are we sending the lion's share of our taxes to the federal government, whose crafty legislators and bureaucrats use our own dough to force our state and local governments to bend to their will -- or have the funding withheld?

And so it is that the federal government has the power to persuade us to drive dinky little cars, not build roads where they need to be built and meddle in all kinds of ways that drive up costs and limit commonsense transportation solutions.

Who are the feds to boss us around when they can't even squander earmark money efficiently?

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.