Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Redirecting Congressional Earmarks

There's a subtle yet important connection between two seemingly unrelated items in Sunday’s Journal Sentinel. A news story by Audrey Hoffer details the annual congressional earmark report from Taxpayers for Common Sense, including an analysis of Wisconsin delegation earmarks. Meanwhile, an opinion piece by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution urges the presidential candidates to discuss how they would help states like Wisconsin re-tool to meet the global economic challenges of the 21st century.

So what’s the connection? Well, it has to do with one’s assessment of the appropriate federal role in solving economic development problems on the state and local level.

As the Hoffer story notes, “earmark” is a dirty word to many, including the group that authored the report. As a former congressional aide who staffed a member of the House Appropriations Committee, you won’t get an argument from me. My contention, however, is not that providing federal dollars for local projects always is wasteful; rather, it’s that appropriations for such projects should be determined by the project’s ability to meet an objective set of criteria determined by the relevant federal agency, and not by the clout of an individual member of Congress or the lobbying skills of project supporters.

Which brings me back to Katz’s piece. He and Brookings have been at the forefront of a movement that is calling for federal reinvestment in struggling metropolitan areas in recognition of the critical role they will play in enhancing the nation’s economic competitiveness in the global economy. This argument was summarized in a recent op-ed he co-authored in the Chicago Sun Times:
Chicagoland simply does not have the power or resources to achieve meaningful reforms to metro-scale problems such as crushing traffic gridlock and inadequate work force housing on its own. Whether we appreciate it or not, the federal government has a powerful role to play in helping metros address these and other issues -- through smart investments, market-shaping information and environment-strengthening regulation. This potential is not being realized since for too long the federal government has been strangely adrift and unresponsive to the dynamic forces at play in our country.
A key to reinvigorating struggling metro areas could be to establish a federal agenda for metropolitan renewal that would formally prioritize investments in those areas as part of the annual appropriations process. This agenda could be funded, at least in part, by reducing the use of earmarks in individual spending bills and allowing metro areas to compete for the same dollars under a set of criteria that recognize the gravity and magnitude of their problems.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see federal resources steered toward transportation improvements, affordable housing and other solutions in metropolitan areas whose health directly impacts the national economy, and whose problems cause the biggest drain on federal, state and local social services budgets, as opposed to projects that benefit those legislators who have best mastered the game of congressional earmarks?

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