12:01am

Wed December 22, 2010
Politics

To Defenders, Some Earmarks Are Sound Politics

As GOP leaders in Congress consider whether to ban earmarks, there are some willing to speak up for the practice. In Florida, they include environmentalists concerned about finding money for Everglades restoration and local officials with big projects to fund, such as the dredging of Miami’s port.

There are few places in Miami more important to the region's economy. It's one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the nation. But Bill Johnson, director of Miami's port, has really just one thing he wants to talk about now: a planned dredging project to accommodate massive cargo ships that will soon use an expanded Panama Canal.

"It would finish before the Panama Canal [expansion] opens in late 2014," Johnson says.

Finish, that is, if the project receives $75 million in federal money. To lock in his funding, Johnson has been making his case for the federal dollars to anyone who will listen. Recently, Johnson met with Florida's incoming governor, Republican Rick Scott. Scott says he likes what he hears about the Miami port expansion but wants to study it. As for funding it, Scott says: "I don't support any earmarks on the federal level."

Earmarks have a long and checkered history in Florida and in national politics. Senators and representatives have traditionally inserted special provisions in bills that designated federal dollars for favored projects -- everything from courthouses to highway construction. Yes, there are bridges to nowhere and many other examples of abuse, but Johnson says not all earmarks are bad.

"If you look historically at the Port of Miami, most ports in America, all of our ports were built through earmarks. It's how the U.S. Army Corps is budgeted and funded. It's like, all of a sudden, earmark is a dirty word," Johnson says.

An Everglades Project

A good place to see your earmarked federal dollars at work is in the Everglades. Contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers are moving dirt and pouring concrete for a raised bridge that will allow water to flow freely through this section of the Everglades.

It's a $400 million project, largely funded through congressional earmarks. According to Kirk Fordham, head of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, it's money well spent.

"On the Everglades, we know you get a 4-to-1 return on the investment, and we know it's going to create 26,000 construction jobs in the short term and as many as 420-some thousand jobs over several decades," Fordham says.

Florida tourism officials make a similar case for replenishing the sand on state beaches, another earmark perennial. In St. Petersburg, for example, a $5 million beach renourishment project is currently under way.

D.T. Minich, the head of the area's visitors and convention bureau, says there's a lot of competition for beach renourishment funds, and it helps a community to have an influential politician in its corner.

"Chicago, Ill., gets a lot of renourishment dollars for their beaches on Lake Michigan. So, there's a lot of stress on those dollars, and we're hoping they will maintain those dollars in the federal budget," Minich says.

Fordham of the Everglades Foundation agrees that some earmark reform may be necessary. But he worries that members of Congress may be giving up too much of their authority over which projects most deserve federal funds.

"The problem with eliminating earmarks is you're essentially ceding those decisions for the most part to bureaucrats within agencies that may or may not have done their homework," Fordham says.

Fordham and other advocates of big projects in Florida say they're preparing for a new rough-and-tumble budget process, one where they'll have to compete against well-heeled interests for increasingly scarce federal dollars.

But even if the earmark ban takes effect, many are skeptical Congress ultimately will agree to cede some of its authority over how money is spent. If earmarks go away, members of Congress may just develop alternatives to direct spending in their home states and districts. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In the coming year, lawmakers will make an effort to eliminate a practice that's often criticized, yet very durable.

INSKEEP: Republican leaders in the House say they want to abolish earmarks. Republican Senate leaders have reluctantly agreed. And even President Obama has criticized the practice though he also signed bills that included earmarks.

WERTHEIMER: Earmarks rarely increase federal spending. Instead, they go to the essence of power in Washington: who decides where the money goes.

For all the criticism they have their defenders, as NPR's Greg Allen found in Florida.

GREG ALLEN: There are few places in Miami more important to the region's economy than its port.

(Soundbite of machinery and vehicles)

ALLEN: It's one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the nation. But the director of Miami's port, Bill Johnson, has really just one thing he wants to talk about now: A planned dredging project to accommodate massive cargo ships that will soon use an expanded Panama Canal.

Mr. BILL JOHNSON (Director, Port of Miami): It would finish before the Panama Canal opens in late 2014.

ALLEN: Finish, that is, if the project receives $75 million in federal money. To lock in his funding, Johnson has been making his case for the federal dollars to anyone who will listen. On this day, it's Florida's incoming Governor, Republican Rick Scott. Scott says he likes what he hears about the Miami port expansion but wants to study it. But as for funding it...

Governor-Elect RICK SCOTT (Republican, Florida): I don't support any earmarks at the federal level.

ALLEN: Earmarks have a long and checkered history in Florida and in national politics. Senators and congressmen have traditionally inserted special provisions in bills that designated federal dollars for favored projects -everything from courthouses to highway construction.

Yes, there are bridges to nowhere and many other examples of abuse, but Johnson says not all earmarks are bad.

Mr. JOHNSON: If you look historically at the Port of Miami, most ports in America, all of our ports were built through earmarks. It's how the U.S. Army Corps is budgeted and funded. It's like, all of a sudden, earmark is a dirty word.

(Soundbite of vehicles and machinery)

ALLEN: A good place to see your earmarked federal dollars at work is out here in the Everglades. Contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers are moving dirt and pouring concrete for a raised bridge that will allow water to flow freely through this section of the Everglades. It's a $400 million project, largely funded through congressional earmarks.

According to Kirk Fordham, head of the non-profit Everglades Foundation, it's money well-spent.

Mr. KIRK FORDHAM (CEO, Everglades Foundation): On the Everglades, we know that you get a four to one return on the investment. And we know that it's going to create 26,000 construction jobs in the short-term and as many as 420-some-thousand jobs over several decades.

ALLEN: Florida tourism officials make a similar case for replenishing the sand on state beaches - another earmark perennial. In St. Petersburg, for example, a $5 million beach re-nourishment project is currently underway.

The head of that area's Visitors and Convention Bureau, D.T. Minich, says there's a lot of competition for beach re-nourishment funds, and it helps a community to have an influential politician in its corner.

Mr. D.T. MINICH (Executive Director, Visitors and Convention Bureau, Lee County): Chicago, Illinois gets a lot of re-nourishment dollars for their beaches on Lake Michigan. So there's a lot of stress on those dollars and we're hoping that they will maintain those dollars in the federal budget.

ALLEN: Over at the Everglades Foundation, Kirk Fordham agrees that some earmark reform may be necessary. But he worries that members of Congress may be giving up too much of their authority over which projects most deserve federal funds.

Mr. FORDHAM: The problem with eliminating earmarks is that you're essentially ceding those decisions, for the most part, to bureaucrats within agencies that may or may not have done their homework.

ALLEN: Fordham and other advocates of big projects in Florida say they're preparing for a new rough-and-tumble budget process; one in which they'll have to compete against well-heeled interests for increasingly scarce federal dollars.

But even if the earmark ban takes effect, many are skeptical Congress ultimately will agree to cede some of its authority over how money is spent.

If earmarks go away, members of Congress may just develop alternatives to direct spending in their home states and districts.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.