Doth the Earmark Trough Runneth Dry?

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The practice of “earmarking” federal money, a Congressional device with debatable impact on the field of youth work, may soon face extinction. Or at least land on the endangered species list. 

In a move signifying the growing influence of Sen Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and his Tea Party-backed earmark ban for all members of the Republican caucus, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) signed onto the ban after having secured more than $1 billion in earmarks during his time in Congress.  

McConnell’s support as Minority Leader will likely lead to the adoption of a caucus-wide ban on earmarks by Senate Republicans, and serves as a direct reversal of McConnell’s earlier statements that an earmark ban “doesn't save any money.” On the House side, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has vowed to keep earmarks out of appropriations bills entirely. House Democrats in the 111th Congress had already limited earmarks to only not-for-profit entities.

That leaves only Senate Democrats as a potential source of earmarks. Veteran Democrats such as Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Jay Rockefeller (W.V.) have already indicated that they are inclined to continue pursuing earmarks. But President Obama has supported earmark reform in the past, and yesterday reiterated support for at least limiting the practice.

There are also plenty of more vulnerable Democrats running for Senate in 2012 who will feel pressure to avoid a practice that has become, in McConnell’s words, “a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.” Democratic Senators Mark Udall (Colo.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) have already pledged to forswear earmarks this year.

Earmarks have been a contentious subject in youth work for decades. The process has steered significant federal funding toward worthy ventures such as mentoring, after-school and gang intervention programs.

Some of those funds have been tacked onto appropriations bills; other earmarks are carved out of an appropriation, which means they take away dollars that would otherwise be available for competitive grant making by federal agencies. The discretionary money appropriated to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was for years entirely eaten up by earmarks.

Youth Today has tracked federal earmarks for youth projects since 2001, when we found about 440 earmarks totaling $420 million. The youth-pork trough was at its sloppiest in 2005, when Congress directed just over $700 million to nearly 1,400 projects.

A tight budget in fiscal 2006 forced earmarks for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services to be nixed, so juvenile justice and delinquency prevention funds accounted for most of the youth earmarks. The next year, there was a complete moratorium on pork while Congress worked out new rules aimed at making the process more transparent.

Youth-related earmarks had surged back by 2009, with $636 million going to about 1,000 projects. Last year the totals fell precipitously: 813 earmarks for just $309 million.

McConnell’s newfound support of the earmark moratorium displays the pressure put on the minority leader by Tea Party groups and conservative members of his caucus. As a former member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell has sought over $1 billion dollars in earmarks, most of which benefited his home state of Kentucky.

Taking the floor of the Senate as this year’s lame-duck session began, however, McConnell was quick to note that there “is simply no doubt that the abuse of this [earmark] practice has caused Americans to view it as McConnell took it as a personal challenge to “how the American people that we're willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things.”

Two of the most prolific earmarks in history have left Congress in recent years. The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) left Congress in 2008. Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), widely considered to be the “king of pork,” died in office last February. 

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.), who has secured the most youth-related earmarks of any Congressman, will finish his 45-year career in the Senate in January.


    Our agency, Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters, has received 3 earmarks in the 2009 appropriations. Unfortunately for we “orphan” agencies, it’s the only way to get funds for our very necessary and effective prevention programs. Too often our evidence-based mentoring work is overlooked as a solution to school drop out and promotion of pro-social behavior. At least earmarks gets us a hearing and review by legislators who can submit requests for support without major legislation being written and promulgated. We know there have been abuses but worthy programs will suffer if earmarks are curtailed.

  • Rick Alleva

    I must acknowledge ‘common ground’ with some whose positions I generally share little agreement with. Regarding earmarks, I can’t see any good case for supporting their continuation…While some worthy youth programs have received funding, the youth service playing field has never been opened or benefited from the process and practice of earmarks–where power and influence is primary, not the services youth need most provided by those most capable of doing so. However, I would really like to hear bipartisan support for placing most if not all ‘former’ youth service earmark dollars into targeted or discretionary grants that would better serve youth through capable organizations worthy of public support.