Earmark ban could kill some Kansas projects

WASHINGTON — Kansas City's Capitol Hill wish list of more than $20 million worth of flood control projects next year could get washed away.

Likewise for Wichita, its aviation industry and other interests in the region, which are all hoping to see Uncle Sam's signature on more than $50 million in federal earmarks in 2011.

If the House and Senate don't pass nearly two dozen more spending bills before the end of the year, a lot of projects won't get done. And the outlook for more earmarks beyond that is dim. House Republicans, who will control the chamber in January, voted last week to ban earmarks next year. Senate Republicans soon followed suit.

Democrats, who will remain in charge in the Senate, are poring over the tea leaves after this month's midterm elections and have not yet tipped their hand. But some have taken up the cause.

Earmarking is the congressional practice of designating millions of dollars without any oversight for projects back home: roads, bridges, health centers — even the occasional tattoo removal program or teapot museum.

While some projects have given the practice a black eye, Augusta, pop. 8,600, has obtained $3 million in earmarks over several years to eventually build a new levee it would have found hard to do otherwise.

"It's expensive for a small town like us," said City Manager Bill Keefer.

But earmarks have become a metaphor for out-of-control spending, and much that is wrong about Washington in general and Congress in particular.

"There's an uneasiness outside the Beltway, and inside, too, about how tax money is being spent," said Anita Estell, a Washington lobbyist for Kansas City. "It invites a larger, more robust debate over who we are as a nation. How do we establish our spending priorities? With a $13 trillion debt, all of a sudden, most Americans are asking, 'How did we get there and what am I getting from it?' "

Earmarks accounted for $16 billion of the federal budget in fiscal 2010. Missouri's share was nearly $214 million. Kansas received $153 million.

Representing less than 1 percent of all federal spending, a full earmark ban would barely have dented last year's $1.3 trillion deficit.

It's an issue with no clear political divide, but enough political firepower that even its practitioners have decided to join the moratorium bandwagon, lest they sound out of tune with the public mood.

"Kansans are frustrated with out-of-control government spending," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "A moratorium on earmarks for the 112th Congress is our commitment to the American people that we are serious about making tough choices for the good of future generations of Americans."

The debate has made allies of earmark critics such as President Obama and the tea party, which could present a political opportunity if he faces re-election in 2012.

Weakened after the midterm elections, the president could decide to "triangulate" between both parties in Congress, just as former President Clinton did following the Democrats' midterm disaster in 1994. It boosted Clinton's political stock and he sailed to re-election two years later.

"This is clearly an area that the president can burnish his fiscal and bipartisan credentials and push Senate Democrats to go along with the moratorium," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog. "He should demand Congress abandon earmarks and come up with transparent budget processes that make spending decisions based on project merit, rather than political muscle."

Earmark critics have for years maintained that the process erodes public confidence in federal spending by allowing powerful lawmakers — and not need or merit — to determine how money is spent in a small portion of the federal budget.

Defenders acknowledge the system could use some reforms. But Danny Rotert, a spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, Mo., said that a ban willingly hands over Congress' power of the purse to the Obama administration.

For Wichita and communities elsewhere, their reliance on earmarks has run smack into the new world of deficit politics.

"In difficult economic times, we have some huge challenges ahead of us and need all the help we can get," said Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. "Whether (Congress) likes it or not, at the end of day, the federal government is there to serve the people of the United States."