OP-ED
From the Office of State Senator Royce West - District 23

For Immediate Release
CONTACT: Kelvin Bass
214-467-0123
May 1, 2008

Another perspective on Congressional Earmarks

By Senator Royce West and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert

Since 2001, Congress has appropriated over $183 million for the Trinity River Corridor Project, which many in Dallas agree is the most important public works endeavor in our city's history. Yet, this critical funding, without which the project would never come to fruition, has never been in the Administration's annual budget. Much has been said and written about Congressional earmarking of federal financial assistance to states and municipalities - most of it negative. We want to help explain why earmarks aren't necessarily bad, and indeed can be a positive and even vital component of federal assistance to state and local governments.

Let's be clear about something upfront. Earmarking funds doesn't increase overall federal spending. Rather, it allows important funding decisions to be made by Members of Congress whom we elect to represent our communities. Were it not for Congress determining where the money is spent, the money would be spent anyway, simply at the discretion of other federal or state officials.

First, it's important to understand what earmarks are. Most federal funding to state and local governments is allocated in one of two ways. The first is through discretionary grants - where individual recipients are selected by various federal agencies, usually with clearance by the White House or officials tied to the White House. Secondly, federal funding is distributed through federal formulas.

Earmarks, on the other hand, are often defined as occurring when projects are selected by Congress to receive specified amounts of funding for specified purposes. But, somehow, critics of congressional earmarks feel that the Administration's awarding of discretionary grants is a good thing. When Members of Congress help determine how money gets spent in their own communities - that's bad; but when bureaucrats in Washington, or people appointed by the Administration (either Republican or Democratic) make these decisions - that's ok.

Who, in Washington, knows what the needs are in their communities more than Members of Congress? Can it be argued that a bureaucrat deep within a federal agency understands a community's needs better than the officials we elect to represent us in the Nation's Capitol? And if these officials help fund projects that we find foolish back home, can't we respond by voting them out? Can that be said of a Washington bureaucrat?

And, frankly, can it even be said that funding decisions made by bureaucrats are somehow free of politics? Who can believe that these decisions aren't colored by the Administration, whether Republican or Democratic, that is in power. And what of grant programs where monies are sent to the states for further distribution? Can it be doubted that the funding allocation decisions made by the states are simply colored by state, rather than federal politics?

Let's be clear about something else - the distribution of taxpayer money for special projects as determined by Congress isn't perfect. Congress has authorized some wasteful spending. But they've also funded, at the City's request, critical flood control projects that will protect the lives and property of Dallas residents.

Projects that Congress chooses to fund are vetted by the committees which provide the funding. Only a small fraction of the many requests received by the committees are actually funded. Many worthy projects don't make the cut and, generally, it is just good projects that are funded.

In Dallas, we are developing dramatic, expensive, and vital additions to our public infrastructure such as the expansion of DART and our plans for the Trinity River Corridor Project. These sizable projects require the benefit of considerable federal assistance. And the amounts needed well exceed what might be expected through some formula that assures that each community gets some modest amount. We are proud that our Congressional representatives are doing the people's business and we are glad they, not Washington bureaucrats, are making these decisions that affect the quality of our lives.

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