Thomas Mann joined Norman Ornstein and Melanie Sloan on the Diane Rehm Show to discuss the process of earmark spendings and how the new administration hopes to reform the process.
Diane Rehm: Thanks for joining us on Diane Rehm. When President Obama signed the omnibus spending bill last week he mentioned the thousands of earmarks contained in the legislation. He said quote, “Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose” and he purposed holding future earmarks up to scrutiny at public hearings. Joining me in the studio to talk about the earmark process and calls for reform, Melanie Sloan, she’s with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Tom Mann from the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute. I know many of you are interested in earmarks, why they’re there, who they help, who gets them there, and who benefits.
Good morning all of you.
Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein and Melanie Sloan: Good morning.
Rehm: Norman Ornstein, define for us exactly what an earmark is.
Norman Ornstein: Well basically, an earmark is when spending is designated for a particular project, grant, or contract. Either through, most of the focus has been on the appropriations process, specific sum of money allocated for something specific or it can also be done by authorizing a program.
Rehm: So not just to the agency that would carry out this.
Ornstein: But for a building, for a highway, for a bike path, for an interchange, or for a defense contract or an academic institution for a particular research project.
Rehm: Melanie, a lot of people have said that these earmarks really pay to play, how do you see it?
Melanie Sloan: And that’s true, so many of them are. Obliviously not everyone, but we’ve had some very big scandals involving earmarks. We’ve had the Jack Abramoff scandal, the Duke Cunningham scandal, and now a new scandal developing about the PMA group and a lobbying firm with close ties particularly to defense appropriations chairman, John Murtha. His former chief of staff, Paul Magliocchetti started PMA, PMA is now under federal investigation for making campaign contributions in direct exchange for earmarks and we’ve seen Mr. Murtha and somebody I believe you’re going to be talking to this morning, Jim Moran, give tons of money in earmarks to clients of the PMA group and they in turn have gotten a lot of money back.
Rehm: We also invited Congressman Murtha on as well, but well he declined.
Rehm: Tom Mann, what percent of the federal budget is actually set aside for earmarks?
Thomas Mann: About one percent.
Rehm: One percent.
Mann: And what’s important to keep in mind too Diane, is this is not 1 percent that if one eliminated all the earmarks would then lead to 1 percent reduction in spending because for the most part, this is not the authorization of new money, it’s rather Congress’s determination to allocate aspects of programs that have already been funded. So if you eliminate the earmarks, presumably those dollars will still be spent, but through other allocation mechanisms such as grant making activities.
My biggest concern is that Washington is signaling to Russia that it’s OK to meddle in the politics of sovereign nations which are your neighbors. Meddling is going on from Paris to Ukraine, from east to west and north to south, within Europe and at its borders, and always with the intent of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions. And it is being either denied or downplayed.