(Source: Civil Beat)
December 4, 2018
By: Nick Grube
WASHINGTON — It was the sort of project no one thought the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress would fund:
A million-dollar conservation mission to Papahanaumokuakea, the 582,578-square-mile national marine monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke once considered shrinking.
The money came through, in large part, because of maneuvering by Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was able to help secure funds for research at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument despite an earmark ban.
Schatz also had the help of billionaire tech entrepreneur Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, who helped fund the federal research grant with their own money.
The creativity was necessary. Ever since Republicans imposed a moratorium on earmarks it’s been difficult for lawmakers to direct federal dollars back to their districts for specific projects. The ban has also made for stickier negotiations on everything from the budget to the farm bill.
Horse-trading can be hard, some say, especially when there’s not much pork in the barrel.
Now there is talk about lifting the moratorium — and it’s coming from both sides of the political aisle.
“It’s hard to get support with the public on earmarks, but I think if you had a vote on the Hill they would come back,” said James Thurber, a distinguished professor in government at American University. “Most people who have been around for a long time realize that they need earmarks to get things done.”
Schatz doesn’t think it’ll happen. Furthermore, he said, Hawaii fares well these days when it comes to federal spending.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, federal spending in the islands equaled 26.4 percent of Hawaii’s gross national product in fiscal year 2014, the 10th-highest such percentage in the country.
Still, any talk of bringing back earmarks is bound to generate interest in Hawaii, which used to benefit from them immensely.
A Way To ‘Grease The Skids’
In September, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer floated the idea while discussing a Democratic reform package that would aim to strengthen ethics rules and campaign finance oversight, including increased disclosure requirements for so-called “dark money” groups.
Republicans, too, have considered ending the self-imposed moratorium, including in 2016, but scuttled the plan for fear of public backlash.
The topic, however, continues to come up, including in post-midterm discussions within the GOP now that the Democrats are about to regain control of the U.S. House.
Even President Donald Trump, who vowed to “drain the swamp,” seemed convincedearmarks are good for the country. He said earlier this year during a discussion about immigration that Congress should consider lifting the ban as a way to loosen congressional gridlock.
The concern, of course, is an increase in corruption, wasteful spending and pay-to-play politics.
“You can look at nearly 200 years of Congress getting things done without earmarks.” — Tom Schatz, Citizens Against Government Waste
Thurber said if earmarks came back they should be subject to strict oversight and public accountability similar to what was in place from 2007 to 2010 when Democrats controlled the House.
They implemented reforms that, among other things, forced lawmakers to attach their names to their funding requests.
“The return of earmarks won’t end partisan gridlock, but it certainly will help grease the skids,” Thurber said.
There are plenty of naysayers, particularly among fiscal conservatives.
A number of groups have sent letters to Congress urging them to keep the moratorium, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, the National Taxpayers Union and FreedomWorks.
Tom Schatz, no relation to the Hawaii senator, is president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which each year releases a new edition of the “Congressional Pig Book” to highlight what it deems to be the most egregious earmarks in Washington.
“The world did not come to an end for Hawaii just because we eliminated earmarking.” — Mazie Hirono
Among those that made it into the book’s “Pork Hall of Shame” was a $273,000 earmark in 2002 for “combating goth culture.”
“It has not been a positive development and a positive attribute to have earmarks,” Tom Schatz said. “They’re costly, they’re inequitable and they lead to corruption.”
He also doesn’t buy the argument that earmarks will help congressional dealmaking.
Bhutanese monks create a sand mandala at the East-West Center in Honolulu, which is often criticized by the Citizens Against Government Waste.