Financial District: In a Pig’s Ear

Earmarks, those lump sums of money our elected representatives put into legislation to fund projects in their districts, part of good old fashioned pork barrel spending, can be a massive waste of highway funding and actually harm the building of vital projects.

According to the Government Accountability Office, an earmark is a congressional directive in legislation to a Federal agency to spend a specific amount of its budget for a specific entity, project, or service. With general appropriations Congress grants a lump sum to an agency to be distributed by the agency.

According to a review of congressional earmarks within Department of Transportation programs done by the transportation inspector general’s office in September 2007 (Report Number AV-2007-066), “earmarks may not be the most effective or efficient use of funds on programs within FHWA, FTA, and FAA. Many earmarked projects considered by the agencies as low priority are being funded over higher priority, non-earmarked projects.”

DOT offered as an example (from FY 2006) how FAA considered 9 of the 10 new earmarked projects, totaling $31.5 million, in its Tower/Terminal Air Traffic Control Facility Replacement Program to be low priority projects that would not have received funding without the earmarks. Funding these new low-priority projects “added to the already
substantial backlog of replacement projects from earmarks in prior fiscal years and caused FAA to delay the planning of its higher priority replacement projects by at least 3
years,” said the report.

Some earmarks are providing funds for projects that would otherwise be ineligible.

For example, said the report, for FY 2006, 16 of 65 earmarked projects, totaling more than $14 million, in FHWA’s Interstate Maintenance Discretionary Program did not meet statutory program criteria and would not have received funding were it not for a section in DOT’s appropriations law that allows funding for earmarks that do not meet the statutory
requirements of the program.v