In this week’s follow the money – controversial political spending through Earmarks. Many say it’s a sneaky way Democrats and Republicans in Congress spend taxpayer dollars - on projects that benefit them - but may not be best for all of us. After much criticism, Republicans led the way to a ban on earmarks in 2011. But that doesn’t mean they were gone forever. Joce Sterman talks with Tom Schatz, the head of the watchdog: Citizens Against Government Waste.
Joce: What are earmarks?
Tom Schatz: Earmarks are spending items added to appropriations bills outside of the normal budget process. An earmark is an item added by a member of Congress to an appropriations bill outside of the normal spending process, generally to help their district or state. Members vote for bills that they ordinarily wouldn’t vote for us so that they can get a small earmark of a few million dollars
Joce: What do you see as egregious earmarks? Are there any off the top of your head that really stick out?
Tom Schatz: There is $836,000 to eliminate the brown tree snakes in Guam, which yes it’s a US territory, but it’s really not a problem that affects the entire United States. There’s $9 million for to eradicate and quarantine fruit flies. $13 million for Save America’s treasures, which is used for local museums and theaters and opera houses in the past. Some of that money hasn’t even been used for its intended purpose.
Joce: What do you see as the real harm of earmarks?
Tom Schatz: Earmarks corrupted the entire budget process. In the early 2000s, members of Congress went to jail over earmarks. That is what eventually led to the moratorium that was adopted in 2010. $15.3 billion in earmarks in 2018 is more than it has ever been during the moratorium -- so it’s moving in the wrong direction.
Joce: You talk about this moratorium - obviously there was an effort to eliminate these or at least limit the number of them. Why does it seem like they’re growing?
Tom Schatz: Congress always finds ways to get around its own rules. Members of Congress are very creative in how they spend taxpayer's money. Joce: Some people would argue that this is what helps legislation get passed, but do you see this as greasing hands between powerful people?
Tom Schatz: Members of Congress who get the earmarks are disproportionately on the appropriations committee. Members of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate, which comprise about 15% of the entire Congress - they got 51% of the earmarks and 61% of the money. It’s disproportionate, it’s unfair, and it’s corrupted. That's what's wrong with earmarks.
This year, Republicans in the Senate made their self-imposed ban on earmarks permanent. Over in the House, some Democrats have pushed to restore them but at last word there wasn’t enough support to allow them again in 2020.