[caption id="attachment_221385" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] The first round of federal earmarks in more than a decade will support the expansion of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals at the University of Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Federal budgets are not often closely watched by much of the public.
[caption id="attachment_203722" align="alignright" width="279"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
Unlike state, county and city budgets, they are wide-ranging with spending projects that span trillions of dollars, which makes it hard for the public to cut through the fat and see how much all that money actually helped their communities.Over the past decade, it’s been even harder for the public to see direct benefits of seemingly astronomical federal spending after earmarks were barred from the budget. It’s not that those investments weren’t occurring, but they were forced to be proposed by the executive branch or obtained through competitive grant processes that can take years to fully dole out.Earmarks, or discretionary spending on projects outside of competitively-bid processes, have been banned under congressional rules since 2011.Congress reined in the spending following some high-profile misuse cases, including the 2005 arrest of California Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham on bribery charges connected to earmarks he obtained for a contractor and the much-maligned, $223 million Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project that was ultimately scuttled. Former President Barack Obama publicly opposed any earmarked spending, while former President Donald Trump called for its return.President Joe Biden, who as a longtime senator was used to the horse-trading behind such projects, supporting empowered legislators to respond to the needs of their districts. Democrats, now with control of both congressional chambers, approved a overhaul of the earmark process for the Fiscal Year 2022 Appropriations Bill signed by the president in March.The return of earmarks was hailed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, although a sizable portion of the GOP sought to continue to bar their use. An amendment to that end introduced by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) was shot down 35-64, with more than a dozen Republican senators backing the inclusion of more than 4,400 earmarked projects.
[caption id="attachment_215895" align="alignleft" width="300"] U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) is the first Delaware to serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee since Cale Boggs nearly 50 years ago. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Sen. Chris Coons, the first Delawarean in 40 years to serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee that has final say on earmarks, argued that the process has been improved during the more than decade-long absence.“It is not the earmarks of 20 years ago,” he recently told me in a conversation. “They got wildly out of hand because they were not transparent, they were not for a clearly legitimate public purpose, and they were misused as a way to reward donors and private sector companies.”Now known as a more friendly “Congressionally Directed Spending,” or CDS, legislators who propose earmarks are required to file a disclosure report and assert that they or their families won’t benefit from them. For-profit businesses are also prohibited from receiving earmarked funds, which must go to jurisdictions, public agencies or nonprofits.“Who better understands the needs of your state, municipalities and nonprofit community: You as the senator or a group of bureaucrats in Washington who are reviewing competitive grant applications from around the country?” Coons said.Arguments that earmarks have bloated federal spending and waste taxpayer dollars also fall flat when you examine the reality.In total, representatives and senators secured earmarks worth a combined $9 billion in the recent $1.5 trillion omnibus bill, according to a Roll Call study. That equates to less than 1% of the total funding, under the cap set by Congress. In Fiscal Year 2010, the last time earmarks were included, Congress set aside $16 billion, or about 1.3% of that budget, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.Delaware’s congressional delegation was able to secure nearly $90 million in earmarks to finish outfitting body cameras on state law enforcement officers, expand mental health resources in New Castle County and addiction treatment in Sussex County, build a new Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington, repair coastal damage in Fenwick Island, restore historic properties and train new offshore wind technicians and distribution logistics workers, among many other projects.Coons also highlighted the $17.5 million they obtained to finally replace a fuel cell hangar at the Delaware Air National Guard base at New Castle-Wilmington Airport.“As county executive, I was part of the community advisory board for the Delaware Air National Guard. I remember seeing that hangar years ago and thinking, ‘Wow, that thing looks like a stiff wind would knock it over,’” he recalled. “It was reviewed, it was approved, but it dragged on for 20 years and just never came to the top of the list for National Guard projects.”Examples like the DANG hangar, as well as an $8 million investment in a new National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals center at the University of Delaware, are exactly why earmarks are something we should be celebrating in Delaware.
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