Congress is set to approve spending for the current fiscal year--more than four months past its deadline. The long delay has led to uncertainty for all state and local government programs that depend on federal money, but nothing has caused more anxiety than the decision of the new Democratic majority in Washington to declare a year-long moratorium on earmarks--money targeted to pet projects around the country.
As a result, agencies in hundreds of places aren't going to receive money they'd been counting on for things such as after school programs, new communications systems for law enforcement and university research. "It's a big disappointment," says Gene Morgan, of the Kansas City Community Center, which stands to lose $500,000 for its halfway-house operations.
But for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, it's hard to argue that a change to the earmarking process is not in order. Congress directs far more spending to specific projects than it used to. In the defense bill alone, the number of earmarks has exploded from just a dozen in 1970 to more than 2,800 in 2005. That means that well- connected members of Congress send more and more dollars to their districts, to the detriment of everyone else.
Immediately upon taking over last month, Democrats in the House passed a rule that will require earmarkers to stand up and publicly claim their projects, meaning less pork-barrel spending will be slipped into bills at the last minute. The greater hope, though, is that the whole federal budgeting process will become more standardized, making funds available to states and localities not as special dispensations but through competitive or formula grant programs. "One of the reasons that the earmarks have developed," says Len Simon, who lobbies for several cities in Washington, "is that so many of the grant programs you could directly apply for have diminished or been completely eliminated."
Even some of the beneficiaries of earmarked largesse concede that a more rational system might be worth it in the long run. The Lewis and Clark Rural Water Project, which aims to provide water for 300,000 people in the Upper Midwest, stands to see its federal funding shrink this year by as much as a third due to the earmark ban. But its executive director, Troy Larson, sympathizes with the new policy. "If they reform earmarks," Larson says, "the result will be that there are less of them and presumably more money for authorized projects that have been scrutinized by Congress."