Government Reform

He's Not an Earmark Hog; He's an Advocate for His Constituents


The New York Times describes several end runs around earmark bans that get money to lawmakers' pet projects less certainly but also less transparently. A "soft earmark" involves "making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project." A "lettermark" is a legislator's written request  to an agency for an expenditure; a "phonemark" is the same thing by telephone. While none of these requests is legally binding, agencies are loath to antagonize the legislators who approve their budgets, especially when they have added extra money with a specific project in mind. And unlike official earmarks, these indirect allocations are not explicitly tied to particular lawmakers in the text of legislation.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Citizens Against Government Waste discovered a September 2009 letter in which Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who will soon take a seat in the Senate, requested stimulus money for his district from the Education Department, despite his opposition to earmarks and pork-barrel spending. "Senator-elect Kirk became the first member of the Appropriations Committee to stop requesting earmarks and voted against the stimulus bill," a spokeswoman told the Times. "He has and will continue to be an advocate for his Illinois constituents before administration agencies but will not request Congressional earmarks to be included in House or Senate legislation."

Other examples of earmarks that are not disclosed because they are not considered earmarks:

The 2010 military bill…contained expenditures that the Pentagon did not want: $2.5 billion for C-17 transport planes; $825 million for all-terrain vehicles; $732 million for other planes, and $500 million for a second engine for the F-35 jet.

Taxpayers for Common Sense found 146 such undisclosed earmarks totaling nearly $6 billion in 2010 spending bills.

NEXT: Net Neutrality Rules Not So Popular

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Say, he looks quite a lot like a Bush.

  2. The only way to stop such chicanery is to ban all omnibus bills — one bill contains one law and ONLY one law, or one and ONLY one tax/spend proposal, and nothing more. If nothing else, it’ll stop the chicanery wherein if a Congresstwit wants to vote to fund veterans’ medical care next year, he must also vote to fund the Lawrence Welk’s Birthplace National Monument and a thousand other stupidities as well.

    1. Some states do that, though it doesn’t always work.

      1. It has to be done at the federal level too, especially considering the imbalance of power: you-the-state can be wise and frugal with your own money but still find yourself in a world of fiscal hurt if the Feds fuck up badly enough and stick you with the bill. It’s like certain homeowner friends I have here in Connecticut, the state which has some of the highest property tax rates in the nation — even if you’re generally a cautious spender who lives within your means, you’re still going to be hurting financially if your city government announces you annual property tax bill on your little Cape Cod home has doubled from $8,000 to $16,000 per year. (Note to readers who don’t live in the hyperexpensive Northeast: that example I just gave was NOT hyperbole.)

        1. What, exactly, do they do with all that money? Build vacation homes on Titan?

        2. Just a note about property taxes–and I am in no way excusing localities that crank up the property taxes when they need money–you can appeal them, and you should if you think you’re getting shafted. There are services out there which will help you with this, and you have a pretty good chance of winning if you really are getting screwed. The problem is that a lot of people don’t realize that they can appeal.

          1. Appeals processes are only as honest as the people staffing them; the appeals people work for the city revenue department, so they won’t drop your bill.

            I remember a story I wrote at the alt-weekly. Short version: bad storm in town a few years back, sewers went kablooey, woman’s house was flooded with raw sewage which also knocked over her just-filled heating oil tank, so now her house and yard are also contaminated with several hundred gallons of toxic waste.

            At the height of the housing bubble, when even crack houses were selling for insane prices, the woman got written confirmation from real estate agents that the house and yard was “contaminated and unsellable.” Despite that, her house was assessed for a huge bubbly value. Appeal denied even though realtor’s “worthless” assessment was in the file. Appeal re-denied after a certain journalist brought the story to light.

        3. Holy shit! In FL my property taxes run about 1% of my assessed value, which is still (post real estate crash) less than Zillow’s estimate for me. And FL still has had huge tax revolts in the past 5 years at that rate. How do you not take after the Conn. legislators with torches and pitchforks?

          1. I really don’t understand it myself — I do, however, say “Thank God for the housing bubble” because if not for that, there’s a very good chance I might’ve bought a little house or condo a few years back WITHOUT first researching what my tax bill would be — I would not have done any research because back then I was naive, and never would’ve dreamed that the humble sort of abode I could afford could be taxed $400 or $500 per month.

            But there’s two things I know about Connecticut: one, property taxes are effectively the ONLY source of municipal revenue; and two, there’s no practical limits to what percent your taxes can be, or what percent they go up each year.

            The way towns and cities do their budgets is: first they draw up how much money they want to spend, then they set the mill rate accordingly. So even if your house, this year, is worth only half what it was at the height of the bubble your tax bill didn’t go down, since the mill rate this year is more than twice what it was three years ago.

            In 2007, when I started covering a certain town for an alt-weekly I used to write for, the town was already in its sixth or seventh consecutive year of property taxes being raised 6 or 7 percent — well above inflation. And after the economy went sour, and people lost jobs and homes lost value and salaries went down — each house’s tax bill was STILL about 7 percent higher than it was the previous year. And 2009 taxes were higher than 2008, and 2010 taxes higher than 2009, and I’m sure they’ll get a tax increase next year too.

    2. I imagine that will work about as well as the provision that all spending bills must originate in the House.

  3. I’m not too pissed as long as he voted against the bill in question.

    What will be super awesome is when a cynical congressman puts in an earmark, then votes against the bill so he can cover himself.

    1. You mean like Mitch McConnell did?

    2. Uhh…doesn’t Ron Paul do that all the time?

  4. mark kirk is a drug warrior.

  5. You see..the problem here is that “Republican from Illinois” is an oxymoron.
    Lincoln would be so proud……

  6. When people give up their money, they want something in return. Like a shiny new military base, or perhaps a refurbished old one.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.