Thursday, March 12, 2009

What those earmarks mean to us (or not)

recently came across a book called "America the Broke: How the reckless spending of the White House and Congress is bankrupting our country and destroying our children's future." Of course, given the economic news we've been living with since last fall, I couldn't resist it. I was especially intrigued by the book's 2004 copyright. Had its author, an economics professor in Arizona, foreseen what we'd be going through just a few years down the road?

The short answer is no; Professor Gerald Swanson at the Eller College of Management of the University of Arizona had not foreseen the financial industry crisis that triggered the global economy's current tailspin. But what he had to say about deficit spending, the national debt, our trade deficit and the federal government's fiscal imprudence was cause for alarm -- especially since the spending practices Prof. Swanson rails against in his book pale by comparison with recent activity in Washington. I'm talking about bailout upon bailout upon bailout, followed by The Stimulus Package -- spending trillions we don't have -- followed by the $410 billion spending bill passed this week just to tide the government over till September. That $410 billion is over and above the defense and homeland security bills Congress sent to former President Bush.

The latest rage among the yapping heads on TV "news" programs these days is "earmarks" -- funding for legislators' pet projects. While the 9,000 or so earmarks in the so-called omnibus spending bill total some $7.7 billion in spending, according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, earmarks are, I'd say, the least of our worries. Sure, $7.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at, but, it is but a fraction of overall spending (independent of the stimulus package.) As Time magazine writer Michael Grunwald wrote: "... blaming the earmark process for wasteful spending is like blaming the Internet for porn. It is just a convenient delivery device, and it can have good uses as well as frivolous ones."

I downloaded a database of earmarks spending from the Taxpayers for Common Sense Web site ( It was interesting. It's comforting to know that, while taxpayer dollars are being doled out by members of Congress, our own Rep. Tim Bishop has a place at the trough. He scored almost $10 million for Long Island, including some big-ticket funding for Army Corps of Engineer projects on the ocean and at Shinnecock Inlet. But it was bothersome to see how little of the congressman's pork-barrel spending came to our neck of the woods. Of that $10 million, the North Fork saw just $19,000 (not counting a $500,000 grant to The Nature Conservancy for seagrass research and restoration, which may help get to the bottom of the disappearing eelgrass on the North Fork.) Yes, that's $19,000 (no zeroes missing) out of $10 million.

Mr. Bishop's earmarks, according to the database, include lots of spending on the south shore: $500,000 to replace a county sewage treatment plant ocean outfall pipe; $475,000 for ferry terminal improvements in Patchogue; $190,000 for the Shinnecock Indian Nation's construction of a preschool; $2 million for work to be done between Fire Island Inlet and Montauk Point, $3.2 million for Shinnecock Inlet; $720,000 for Lake Montauk Harbor; $100,000 for Moriches Inlet; $191,000 for Montauk Point; and $119,000 for the Forge River watershed. Other projects our congressman deemed worthy of funding: $214,000 to the Stony Brook University journalism school for a partnership program to teach scientists how to effectively communicate with the public and the press; $245,000 for the Suffolk District Attorney for prosecuting gang-related firearms crimes; $196,514 for the Middle Country Library Foundation in Centereach; and $133,000 to the Smithtown Fire District for facilities and equipment.

Time's Mr. Grunwald observed: "Earmarks were made for hypocrisy; they're always reprehensible when they're in someone else's district."

Or in some other corner of your own.

Prof. Swanson, by the way, told me that the disastrous scenario he lays out in his book is still waiting for us around the corner. What we've seen in the past year is, in his opinion, only a precursor of things to come unless Congress and the president get deficit spending, our national debt, and trade imbalance under control. Unfortunately, I think he's probably right.