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Seeing Through Earmarks

We haven't heard much about earmarks in San Diego since 2006. That's when former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham was caught trading earmarks for bribes -- $2.4 million worth of quid pro quo defense contracts exchanged for antiques, a lavish home, and other opulent goodies. Perhaps, following months of blistering national coverage and Cunningham's imprisonment for conspiracy and tax evasion resulting from those bribes, one would think earmarks might be out of favor with Congress.

But they seem to be as popular as ever. In fact, on March 11 th , the $410 billion omnibus bill that will fund the federal government through the fall was signed by President Obama, even though it contains 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion. Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to engage in earmark reform if he were elected. After signing that omnibus bill, he promised again to do battle with earmarks. Eliminating them was not in his plan, but opening them to scrutiny was and is.

Recently, San Diego's delegation -- or rather four-fifths of them -- weighed in on earmarks at a San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon. All four defended earmarks, although Rep. Darrell Issa said that he's sworn off requesting future earmarks. Meanwhile, his pork for fiscal 2009 adds up to about $120 million including funding for an airport, gang prevention and a nursing program. His new colleague, Duncan D. Hunter, has racked up a goodly number of earmarks for his district including construction of a YMCA gym, equipment for Edgemoor Hospital and a pedestrian bridge.

Both Hunter and another Republican Congressman, Brian Bilbray, who now represents Cunningham's former district, are going after money for Predator drones. These unmanned planes are manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics which has contributed $50,000 to Bilbray through its political action committee since 1997. And the company was his the company was his top donor in the 2007-2008 funding cycle.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Susan Davis has targeted tens of thousands for Family Health Centers, aquifer mapping, and a one-stop small business resource center among others.

But it's long-time Democratic Congressman Bob Filner who, along with his earmarks for the San Ysidro Health Center, training programs for at-risk youth and veterans, and water reclamation programs, has offered a rationale for earmarks. He declared at the Chamber of Commerce event: "The earmark process does not add money to the whole budget. It takes money that the bureaucracy was going to spend and says we're going to direct it in ways that we as Congress people know best."

So what's wrong with earmarks ? The list is long. But here are a few problems. They circumvent the merit-based or competitive allocation process of the committee system and often are plugged into legislation after it's gone through debate and scrutiny. Also, in the appropriations process, decisions are made by executive branch agencies, such as the Pentagon which decides what the military needs. The director of the Washington defense monitoring firm Globalsecurity.org says that military requests should be made through the Department of Defense to uncomplicate the process. In effect, the earmark removes the vetting process from the executive branch, giving the legislative branch full rein and upsetting some of the balance of power. And unfortunately, too often there's a connection between the earmark and bringing home the bacon to the biggest campaign contributors.

But the president has promised a change and will combat secrecy with more transparency and insist on competitive bidding. Here's what he said about earmark reform :

Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members' websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merits for themselves. Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.

Next, any earmark for a private for-profit company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions that we've already seen.

Congressman Bilbray was paying attention. The very next day, his website listed his earmarks , including the Predator drones. This could be the beginning. But what exactly do we want the end to be?

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