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House Getting Creative With the Earmark Moratorium

February 6, 2012 - by Donny Shaw

House Republicans are starting to find ways around the earmark moratorium they voted for last year. The latest example, according to the New York Times, comes in the form of the 2012 Army Corps of Engineers budget. Instead of the $533 million worth of earmarks they included in 2010, the 2012 budget sets aside $507 in 26 slush funds, along withe a set of guidelines for making sure the money goes to Congress’ favorite pet projects.

The funds were financed by reducing money for projects included in the president’s budget request and adding $375 million to the corps budget, documents show.

Congress also gave the corps criteria to use in selecting projects and instructed it to report within 45 days about how it intends to spend the money from the funds, according to the budget documents. On Monday, the corps will release the list of projects it plans to finance. […]

Critics say the special funds in the corps budget are the latest example of members of Congress trying to circumvent the earmark ban to funnel money to their districts, in the form of corps engineering projects. In the absence of earmarks, lawmakers have tried pressing agencies for money or in some cases threatened to tie up Congress if projects are not financed.

The end result of the earmark moratorium is not less wasteful spending on projects; it’s less accountability in the budgeting process. Under the normal earmarking process, each project requested for funding by Congress would be publicly disclosed with detailed information on dollar totals and the names of members of Congress who requested the funding. Under the House’s moratorium, the slush funds will be converted into specific project funding through an opaque process, known as “lettermarking,” involving private communications between members of Congress and executive branch bureaucrats. Short of a gigantic investigation involving a drawn-out FOIA process, the public will never know for sure which members of Congress pushed for specific projects to be funded. That secrecy makes the process much more corruptable. 

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