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Earmark system has its benefits
Fredericksburg-area reps in Congress talk about earmarks

Date published: 12/5/2010

By Chelyen Davis

When the U.S. Senate voted last week on a ban on earmarks, Virginia's senators were split.

Sen. Jim Webb voted against the ban. Sen. Mark Warner voted for it. The ban did not pass, but earmarks will continue to be a target for those seeking ways to reduce spending.

Earmarks are the term for spending items that get inserted into bills, often with little or no debate. They often shunt money back to a member's home district, and they're controversial--and an easy way for congressmen to get money for pet projects.

Earmarks proposed by or co-sponsored by members of Congress are listed on LegiStorm, a Web database that tracks congressional trips, earmarks, gifts, financial disclosures and staff salaries.

The earmark information on LegiStorm comes from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan, nonprofit federal budget watchdog organization.

The site defines an earmark as "a federal expenditure that is specifically directed to apply to a particular project or program, usually within the congressional district of the provision's author."

According to LegiStorm, funding through earmarks has risen sharply in recent years, amounting to more than $18.3 billion of the nearly $3 trillion federal budget in fiscal 2008.

In 2007, Congress began requiring more transparency in earmarks, and these days the cry is to end them altogether. According to an April blog posting by the then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, earmarks declined by 17 percent in volume and 27 percent in dollar value for fiscal 2010.

But while bad earmarks get a lot of attention--remember Alaska's "bridge to nowhere"?--is there such a thing as a good earmark?

It doesn't seem to be quite so black-and-white.

After all, even as members of Congress use earmarks to send money home, the projects the money pays for are often beneficial, creating jobs or infrastructure or protecting the environment.

For example, one of the earmarks Webb supported was for VRE trains and other equipment. Others were for mental health and substance-abuse programs, improvements to Interstate 95 and other roads, and to address water issues in Southwest Virginia. Webb and Warner both supported earmarks for the Dulles rail project, while both of the senators and several state congressmen all have supported earmarks for military and defense projects in Virginia.

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