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Bracing for Budget Season and Earmark Agonizing

In the House, the appropriations committee is marking up spending bills, which means that rhetoric about earmarks is about to ramp up. Yesterday, the House passed a bill defunding more than $700 million in aging earmarks, and in the Senate, a measure that would create an earmark database moved out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Earmarks — items that members of Congress insert into the budget — make up a tiny percent of the trillions of dollars the government spends each year. But because they finance projects that benefit just one community — like David Obey’s infamous ice sled — or just one company, earmarks are constantly trotted out as a way of castigating wasteful Washington.

Whether earmarks are malicious or merely get a bum rap, few lawmakers are eager to rid the budget of them altogether or to give the public a peek into the practice. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), for instance, stalled the Senate bill last month when he raised questions about the complexity of creating an earmarks database. The Sunlight Foundation’s Lisa Rosenberg says not to worry, though:

The smart folks over in Sunlight Labs, who create these kinds of databases for a living, assure me that most of the Senators’ concerns can be addressed…. Projects we’ve worked on, such as Subsidyscope and Elena’s Inbox, belie any claim that such a requirement is too technologically cumbersome for the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House. Technological “hurdles” should not be used as an excuse to water down the bill.

Members of Congress might find a database useful, too, if only to find out which beneficiaries were letting their earmarks languish. I asked Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, why $700 million of earmarks were lying around, waiting for the House to erase them, and he explained that the intended recipient might not have wanted the money in the end.

“Maybe the project was really expensive, and the money was a small part of the overall cost,” he said. “If someone offered to give you a car, you’d have to think about if you’d want another car, if you had to pay for parking and insurance.”

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