Judging from Dino Rossi's emerging stump speech, earmarks are going to be an issue in his run against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) as he stresses smaller, streamlined government. Sen. Murray has been criticized as an earmark (or pork) marvel, securing over $223 million in earmarks in the 2010 federal budget. An earmark is basically a sub-sub-sub budget line item that gets put into the federal budget when Congress takes its shot at the executive branch budget proposal, convincing colleagues to support their projects as they swap out other proposed expenditures.
"There couldn't be more of a contrast between the candidates," Rossi told a GOP crowd in Tacoma last week. "I'm running against a candidate who's number three in earmarks. You know what, this is going to be a stark change," he said. Rossi framed the election as a referendum on "the purpose and role of government ... should it be a limited government or an overreaching government? Every time they raise your taxes, they're taking money from the job creating, wealth creating sector of society and putting it into government for temporary jobs."
Murray was actually 9th biggest Senate "earmarker" in the 2010 budget (not the third), securing funding for 191 projects. (The top-ten earmarkers include six Republicans and four Democrats.) Earmarks represent between one and two percent of the federal budget.
Washington State Democrats spokeswoman Anne Martens counters Rossi's anti-earmarks rap. "If he's saying there's going to be no more federal money coming to Washington State, it's a strange thing to run on," she said. "Earmark is just a fancy word for federal money and federal money pays for transit and cleaning up Hanford."
In old school parlance, "earmarking" was known as bringing home the bacon. For example, the Federal Transit Administration has a $10.3 billion budget this year. An earmark would come a few ledger lines down—like Sen. Murray's $2.4 million earmark for light rail car acquisition.
Earmarks aren't inherently bad. In fact, light rail cars seem pretty good. However, critics, like Steve Ellis at Taxpayers for Common Sense, contend that "they are about political muscle rather than project merit"—meaning that political pet projects rather than legitimate government priorities can end up in the federal budget.
Ellis calls the system "a Petri dish for corruption" because it creates a shady pay-to-play system where big contributors give money to powerful politicians—like committee chairs—to get their projects funded. (Murray chairs the appropriations subcommittee on transportation.)
Taxpayers for Common Sense monitors earmarks and created a database with OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan group that tallies campaign contributions, tracking the relationship between a legislator's campaign dollars and their earmarks. Their research shows only $500,000 worth, or 0.3 percent, of Murray's $380 million in 2009 earmarks linked to any campaign contributions—contributions worth just $1,400.
Murray's earmarks include money for everything from YWCA domestic violence programs in Yakima, infrastructure fixes at McChord Airforce Base, law enforcement dollars directed at fighting meth in Tacoma, to diesel-electric hybrid buses in Spokane. And she makes no apologies about her "political muscle" to get dollars for Washington State, saying: "Washington is 2,500 miles away from the nation's capital. When I come to D.C., it is my responsibility to fight for my home state."
Rossi's spokeswoman Mary Lane says:
"Dino's problem is with the sketchy way earmarks are done—attached to any given bill no matter what the underlying legislation is, and done in a backroom-deal way. and then you end up with a giant monster-bill with all these earmarks attached, and it has to be voted up or down and the president has to either sign it or veto it.
How about making congress—or at least the relevant committee -- vote on each of these earmarks in an open way? if they're worthwhile, they'll pass. if they don't stand up to scrutiny, they won't. with more transparency and accountability in the way congress spends our money, we can control our budgets and cut out some of the senseless wasteful spending. maybe if more scrutiny were built into the system, for example, taxypers wouldn't have shelled out $4.5 mil for a boat no one wants."
Washington state's GOP delegation—Reps. Doc Hasting, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Dave Reichert—were co-sponsors on nearly $30 million of Murray's earmarks, including funding for everything from agriculture projects and science labs to the Bellevue Boys & Girls Club, U.S. 195 maintenance, and Yakima River Basin water storage.
Republicans have called for a moratorium on all earmarks this year. Democrats in the House passed legislation banning earmarks for private companies.
I've linked Taxpayers for Common Sense's complete database of 2010 earmarks here. Judge for yourself if Murray's muscle has merit.