President Obama gave his State of the Union Address this past week and in it he focused on a variety of important issues – transportation being one of them. The President emphasized high-speed rail, rebuilding roads and bridges, connecting the entire U.S. population to the digital age, increasing clean energy infrastructure, and making sure these projects are supported by private investment.
The President also rather emphatically said that he would not sign any bill that contained earmarked projects. This is not a new issue for Congress to debate – it comes up all the time. The entire script of the speech can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address.
What exactly is an earmark? It’s a specific project with a specific amount of money tied to it identified in a proposed piece of legislation. Many people think that an earmark is money an area receives in addition to its regular funding – so it amounts to extra money to build some project. This is not always the case – especially as it relates to transportation funding. Most times, an earmarked transportation project only serves to prioritize money an area is already receiving from formula funds – it serves to have Congress prioritize funds that local elected officials would normally prioritize! Many times a project that has not been prioritized high enough in the local process gets submitted for “congressional” funding and is funded in this manner.
In addition, you almost never get all the money you need through the earmarking process to do the project. This means that an agency then has to find other funds to supplement the congressional earmark it has received. This often takes several years to accomplish and many times additional dollars are never found. This is one reason that many earmarked funds are never actually spent.
I can say, though, that certain projects – important projects of regional significance – have a much better chance of being funded through the use of earmarks than through the use of formula funds. Transit capital projects are often funded through the use of congressional earmarks and they do represent additional dollars coming into an area that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
It will be difficult for Congress to develop legislation without earmarked projects and equally difficult for the President to veto otherwise good legislation that contains some earmarked projects. Can’t wait to see what happens!