Andy Harris, the Baltimore County state senator who launched his second run for Congress yesterday, is absolutely right that the system of congressional earmarks - the means by which federal legislators can slip funding for pet priorities into the budget, often without much oversight - is terribly flawed.
Case in point: the $410 billion spending bill President Barack Obama signed in March, which contained 8,500 earmarks adding up to $7.7 billion. The president used the occasion to call for reform, saying that bill should be the starting point for changing the culture of earmarks forever. Nine months later, Congress approved a defense appropriation bill with $4 billion in earmarks and sidestepped one of the major elements of the president's still-too-modest reform agenda: forcing earmarks for private, for-profit firms to be subject to competitive bidding. As Sen. John McCain noted in the spring, "So much for change."
But Senator Harris' made-for-the-campaign solution, a promise that he wouldn't play the earmark game if he's elected to Congress, oversimplifies the issue. After all, not all earmarks are created equal. For every bridge to nowhere, there's funding for plenty of bridges to somewhere. These days, a lot of the money Maryland lawmakers are requesting has to do with preparing our infrastructure to handle the influx of military workers the federal government is sending our way - hardly an egregious use of their authority.
Another example that the voters of the 1st Congressional District might care about is Ocean City beach replenishment, which is funded through federal earmarks and recently proved its worth by sparing the resort community from major storm damage.
Senator Harris should be familiar with the relative merits of legislative requests for funds; he's participated in the General Assembly's own version of the earmark process, known as bond bills, wherein lawmakers can push for funding of projects in their districts with relatively little oversight of how the money is spent. That system, while not quite the circus of the federal earmark process, has been subject to abuses, such as lawmakers' efforts to steer funds to organizations they or their relatives are affiliated with.
Mr. Harris hasn't refused to participate in the bond bill process, though he has been a sparing user of the system and has been particularly unsuccessful at getting money, even by the standards of Republicans in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. But the projects he's requested funds for seem perfectly laudable - improvements to the emergency room at Franklin Square Hospital or money for a YMCA in Harford County, for example.
The unilateral disarmament strategy Senator Harris is proposing for himself should he be elected to Congress would have one certain effect: It would make sure the 1st District loses out on federal largesse. The Democrat whom Senator Harris is trying to unseat, Rep. Frank Kratovil, has requested money for items such as a study of the agriculture industry's impact on Chesapeake Bay pollution; oyster restoration; a system to allow domestic violence victims to more easily get information on the incarceration status of their attackers; and a new, eco-friendly middle school in Centreville. There's a valid argument to be had about what projects really deserve federal funding and which should be funded by the states, but the notion that earmarks are all waste is false.
Mr. Harris says he believes that he could contribute to the creation of a critical mass of lawmakers who reject earmarks, but moral suasion through shame seems a tool particularly ill suited to Congress. Rather than reject the good with the bad, Mr. Harris should focus on fighting for more transparency. Per new congressional rules, Mr. Kratovil has posted his earmark requests online, which is a good start, but Mr. Harris is right to suggest that they should be subject to the same level of debate in committees and on the House floor as any other legislation.
To solve the problem, sweeping changes - such as legislation proposed by Senator McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold to give the president limited line-item veto authority for earmarks - are probably needed. Mr. Harris' promise to eschew earmarks won't accomplish much, but joining a bipartisan coalition for reform - and pressuring his opponent to do so - just might.
I'll believe it when I see it. Andy Harris realizes that the buzzword "earmark" creates revulsion in the minds of voters. And he wants little to do with voter revulsion until election day has safely passed with a win in his pocket.
For members of Congress, someone else's earmarks are always more distasteful than their own earmark babies. Andy Harris is grandstanding and throwing down the gauntlet to Frank Kratovil. Kratovil should not bite.
Those voters in Maryland who favor the earmarks - and there are probably many of these - will find Andy Harris' suddenly acquired taste for austerity insincere, and he could lose despite his grab for a squeaky-clean image.