Looking for loopholes in the GOP’s earmark ban

LOOKING FOR LOOPHOLES IN THE GOP’S EARMARK BAN…. Congressional Republicans have managed to convince their base — and much of the mainstream, for that matter — that earmarks are an evil, easily-abused tool, responsible for wasteful spending and political corruption. It was with great pride that the GOP caucuses in both chambers imposed voluntary moratoriums on themselves, prohibiting the use of earmarks.

For their next trick, watch as these same Republicans scramble to find work-around solutions to the problems they created. In this case, that means earmarking without actually earmarking.

No one was more critical than Representative Mark Steven Kirk when President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Congress sought passage last year of a $787 billion spending bill intended to stimulate the economy. And during his campaign for the Illinois Senate seat once held by Mr. Obama, Mr. Kirk, a Republican, boasted of his vote against “Speaker Pelosi’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan.”

Though Mr. Kirk and other Republicans thundered against pork-barrel spending and lawmakers’ practice of designating money for special projects through earmarks, they have not shied from using a less-well-known process called lettermarking to try to direct money to projects in their home districts.

Mr. Kirk, for example, sent a letter to the Department of Education dated Sept. 10, 2009, asking it to release money “needed to support students and educational programs” in a local school district. The letter was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which shared it with The New York Times.

The district, Woodland School District 50, said it later received about $1.1 million in stimulus money.

As far as Kirk is concerned, this isn’t an earmark — it’s just a member of Congress asking that a portion of a larger spending bill go directly to a specific project that benefits his/her constituents. Got that?

The point for Republicans is to find loopholes to their own self-imposed restrictions. The solution appears to be in the timing — actual earmarks happen on Capitol Hill before spending measures become law. These new tactics are identical, except they happen after the spending measures pass Congress.

The result is a whole new set of gerunds to get used to.

Lettermarking, which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.

In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project.

Most of the time, even leading anti-earmark crusaders will concede that earmarks are a “symbol” of an ugly process, and that may very well be true. The problem, though, with addressing a problem that doesn’t really exist is that the solutions tend to be pretty silly.

As a consequence, we’re going to see Republicans, working through a straightjacket they’re wearing for “symbolic” reasons, struggling to figure out how to keep doing what they’ve been doing.