There's been quite a bit written in recent weeks about the earmarks on spending by congressmen who chair committees or subcommittees. Congressional earmarks are nothing new, but the number and cost of such projects have risen dramatically in recent years. Over the past 12 years, the number of earmarks has tripled to 16,000, worth $64 billion a year.
A review of congressional earmarks in recent years makes it evident that some reform must be introduced. The earmark that generated the most negative publicity has been the Alaska Republicans' allocation of more than $200 million in federal funds for a bridge to remote Gravina, Alaska, which has a population of 50.
This has since been labeled by talk show hosts and others as the bridge to nowhere. A Democratic congresswoman, in defending this unbelievable allocation, warned her colleagues that "if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next." Heeding this warning, every member on the Appropriations Committee voted against an amendment to strike the bridge. As of this writing, the fate of this bridge is still unclear.
Will the midterm elections have any effect on ridding the nation of the evils of earmarks? Democratic congressional leaders say they will strive to end the anonymity of the earmarks by requiring disclosure of the lawmakers who sponsor them. The outcome is still uncertain, but many Democratic appropriators consider earmarks to be a long-standing congressional tradition. That appears to assure that earmarks will continue to be with us at the expense of the average taxpayer.
One of the foremost practitioners of the art of earmarking through the years has been Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Come January Byrd will become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Byrd is a greatly revered senator, and few, if any in his party will thwart his efforts and his earmarks. There are dozens of West Virginia facilities carrying his name. You can wager there will be more.
Very little has been written or said about the pork-barrel spending by members of the State Senate or Assembly. These are so-called member items and are distributed at the discretion of individual legislators and their leaders without public debate or vote. These are, however, the same as the congressional earmarks.
A total of $170 million has been doled out this year in the two houses of the State Legislature. Leading the pack has been Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has directed some $7.5 million in pork-barrel spending this year. It must be said that much of the member-item spending is allocated to social service programs and to local civic groups, youth athletics, school programs and museums. The state legislators use their member-item funds for services not provided in the state budget.
Under a long-standing program, the Senate and the Assembly each got to spend $85 million without the need for accountability that identifies which lawmaker directed money to which groups. That now has changed somewhat thanks to a successful lawsuit by the Albany Times Union that forced the Assembly's Democratic majority to release the details of recent pork-barrel spending.
Silver's grants included $14,000 for a cleaner Chinatown and $35,000 to the Chinatown Y as well as three grants of $194,000, $155,000 and $194,000 to the United Jewish Council of the East Side.
I've barely scratched the surface in the negatives involved in both member items in the State Legislature and the much more expensive earmarks in the Congress. But needless to say, these are not healthy, democratic procedures. They will, however, continue to exist under Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, this is what politics in the United States is all about at both the federal and state levels.
Murray Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.