Earmark ban is not the answer

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2010

Last week, the Senate rejected a proposal that would impose a three-year moratorium on earmarks in both appropriations and authorization bills. Although it failed to pass in this "lame-duck" session -- eight Republicans and 48 Democrats voted in opposition -- there's little doubt that the issue will resurface once the new Congress convenes in 2011.

While I agree on the need to reduce federal spending and improve transparency in the budget process, a ban on earmarks will not reduce the deficit by one cent. And if federal spending transparency and accountability are the goals, there are steps that we can take to improve in these areas without handing over the reins of the budget process to the Administration and unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

By banning earmarks, we would be leaving the development of the federal budget to the executive branch, and interest groups would pursue their projects behind the closed doors of federal agencies and the White House and without the sunlight that the congressional process affords. Communities from Bethel, Alaska, to Des Moines, Iowa, to New York City would have to make their case to Administration officials as to why their project is worthy, and it would be up to the Administration alone to pick the winners and losers. It is a cynical view, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which states with key primaries or a large number of electoral votes find a more receptive audience than those without the added allure.

But the earmark ban amendment that was considered last week would go far beyond simply addressing Appropriations Committee issues. It could also affect legislation that authorizes federal spending. There are literally hundreds of bills that are written to deal with problems in a state or region that must include language to authorize discretionary spending. Under the amendment, these bills could not be considered unless requested by the administration. For example, Congress could be prohibited from requiring that any percentage of federal offshore oil and gas revenues be shared with the State of Alaska. Furthermore, legislation providing critical federal loan guarantees for an Alaska natural gas pipeline could also be prohibited by this earmark ban.

From my role atop the Energy and Natural Resources Committee panel and as an appropriator, I look at this and ask What does this mean for our ability to provide oversight of the National Park Service, the Minerals Management Service, or the U.S. Forest Service? If we have an administration or agency that is intent on locking up tracts of land in the Tongass from development, how do we ensure that money is spent to prepare timber sales and to build roads necessary to harvest timber? How do we ensure that the federal government conducts lease sales for oil and gas and mineral development on federal lands and on the outer continental shelf if we make the threat of congressional direction an empty one?

Our system of government is built upon the idea of checks and balances. If the Congress were to ban earmarks, we would be shirking our responsibility to oversee the actions of the federal agencies and handing to unelected bureaucrats the power of the purse, which is vested in Congress by the Constitution.

There is no question that we need to cut runaway federal spending. This is reflected in my voting record. But once the budget top line number is set, I will not shy away from making sure that the people I represent have their voices heard. Alaska is a young state lacking in basic infrastructure and, as such, its needs are great. The Alaska delegation understands this, which is why we are united in our opposition to this earmark ban. I agree that there could and should be more transparency in the budget process, and am committed to working toward that end. But a ban on earmarks is not the answer.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, is the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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