When congressional leaders began to assemble the mammoth economic stimulus bill, top Democrats and the Obama administration decided that there would be no earmarks: no "special projects," no pork-barrel spending. In so doing, they gave up some control over how the money is spent, leaving the decision to public servants around the country.
"Someone has to decide how money gets spent. It's either going to be Congress or the executive branch or states or municipalities," says Fred Wertheimer of the congressional watchdog group Democracy 21.
Lawmakers had good reasons for stripping earmarks from the bill, Wertheimer says, because "they are simply going to become huge targets for attacking the credibility of the package, and they may very well end up as abusive earmarks."
It was a wise political decision, he says. But pulling earmarks out of the bill changes the balance of power in the government. If members of Congress aren't writing into the bill how the money will be spent, then someone else must make those decisions — or, in this case, a lot of people.
"Because there is so much money here, and in so many different forms, there is no single pathway for the money to go out to states and localities," says Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution.
'This Is An Emergency'
When this bill passes, a Niagara Falls of money will flow out of Washington and into the accounts of state highway commissioners, governors and legislatures, local school boards, county executives — even mayors, Binder says.
"It raises a whole host of questions about how efficiently money can be spent, how effectively it will be spent, how quickly money can be spent, just because there's no set process here for determining how money will get out the door to create jobs or, as the president said, to save jobs," she says.
U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, helped write the bill and says he doesn't like being asked about earmarks.
"We simply made a decision, which took about three seconds, not to have earmarks in the bill," he says. "And with all due respect, that's the least important question facing us on putting together this package."
Leaving out the earmarks does mean Congress will have less control over how the money is spent. But, Obey says, "So what? This is an emergency. We've got to simply find a way to get this done as fast as possible and as well as possible, and that's what we're doing."
That doesn't mean Congress will be responsible if the money is spent badly, he says.
"The person who spends the money badly will be responsible. We are simply trying to build as many protections in as possible," Obey says. "We have more oversight built into this package than any package in the history of man. If money is spent badly, we want to know about it so we can hold accountable the people who made that choice. And guess what? Regardless of what we do, there will be some stupid decisions made."
How To Avoid Disappointment?
As it stands now, says David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general, the bill appears to have no mechanism for directing spending. It's left up to those state and local officials, who may or may not have the ideas or the means to spend it appropriately. And that will lead to "a series of disappointments that it's too late to do anything about," Walker says.
The bill does make it possible for lawmakers and the public to track the money — but only after it's spent. And that, he says, will lead to bad surprises.
Take, for example, the giant bank bailout known as TARP. That spending has gone all wrong, Walker says. Though the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office are keeping track of the billions spent there, "they're basically reporting on what didn't happen," he says.
"Well, it's a little bit late," he says. "And so the question is, what are you going to do on a prospective basis? I mean, you can't change history. What are you going to do on a prospective basis to minimize the possibility of being disappointed again?"