Pork Comes Flying Back

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Once again, writing to your local congressman literally pays off.

After being all but banned in a purported wave of concern over congressional ethics and fiscal responsibility, earmarks are back en masse in the 2008 budget proposals – albeit with new rules purportedly designed to make the practice of appropriating earmarks more transparent.

New lists of earmarks slated for approval show the winners in the youth field, and, fulfilling a new congressional mandate, who their benefactors are in Congress. Also public for the first time are thousands of letters from members of the House of Representatives asking leaders to approve earmarks for favored programs.

Download: Earmark charts 

But it would be hard to say that much has changed. The big guys are getting their money again: Boys & Girls Clubs of America drew $6 million, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is slated for at least $6.4 million. (The totals include the national organizations and their affiliates.)

And if you hold a romantic view of the earmark process – wherein local representatives cut through Washington’s red tape to win funding for deserving social programs back home – then there are lots of feel-good stories about small agencies like Community Alliance for Progressive Positive Action (CAPPA). The five-year-old Williamsport, Pa., nonprofit, which is something of a cross between Saturday school and American Idol, appears to have nailed a $140,000 earmark on its first try.

“We didn’t really think the earmark was going to work, but we were hoping that they would see this makes sense,” said co-founder and Executive Director Loni Gamble.

The list of winners is gleaned from House and Senate appropriations reports. Although it’s extremely rare for earmarks to make it this far and be cut, Congress must still pass the spending measures and send them to President Bush for his approval.

How It Works

Congress has struggled over the fate of earmarking for three years. The practice is widely condemned as poor fiscal management, as it increases expenditures in some departments and cuts into the funds available for competitive bidding in others. But most legislators believe funding local programs increases their chances of re-election, and they see no problem with getting money for efforts that appear to help people.

In fiscal 2006, legislators removed earmarks from the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bills. For this fiscal year, the Democratic Congress voted to remove most earmarks from all legislation.

But the anti-earmark movement turned out to be an anomaly, to the relief of countless organizations, including youth-serving agencies.

Fiscal 2008 does mark the first time that the House has publicly released a stack of bound volumes that includes all letters from House members requesting earmarks that were eventually approved. The Senate is not bound to release its letters requesting earmarks.

Getting a lawmaker to write such a letter to the chairman or ranking member of the relevant appropriations committee is the first and often the only step in getting an earmark, although it can be a tough one for newcomers.

The 1,361-page, nearly eight-pound collection examined by Youth Today applies only to House earmark requests for the departments of Commerce, Justice, State and related agencies. Each appropriations bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education has its own pack of letters.

Oddly (to an outsider), none of the requests asks for a specific amount. Some letters detail the history and merits of the organizations to be funded; others simply name the organizations and ask for money.

As with much that goes on in Congress, inserting earmarks is a chaotic and politicized process. Names of organizations are sometimes misspelled. It is often hard to discern whether a group is a state entity or a private organization.

At CAPPA – an eight-month Saturday school program that culminates in a televised American Idol-esque performance – Gamble figured earmarking was the only way to get federal funding. His tactic was aggressive self-promotion. A few months ago, he started asking for help from his congressman, Rep. Christopher P. Carney (D-Pa.). Gamble told Carney about youths from the agency who’d gone on to jobs as police officers or who went to college. Carney eventually wrote a letter on behalf of CAPPA.

It’s the same process used by most veterans, like Marcanne Kouri-Beck, grants administrator for the Coalition of State PALS League Gang Violence Prevention-Intervention Program, which includes Police Athletic Leagues in California, Florida, New Jersey and New Mexico.

“We’ve got an advantage in New Mexico. We have a really great relationship with our legislators,” said Kouri-Beck. “We only have three [House members], so they know who we are and what our program does.” The coalition is slated to get up to $500,000 in earmarks.

But few organizations depend on earmarks, because the political process can be fickle.

“You have to look at diversification, because the government is often going to have other priorities – like Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Vera Best, executive director of the Best Resource Center, in Newburgh, N.Y. The center, which provides job training and tutoring to students who need help making the transition to college, won an earmark of $320,000.