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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Congress could try some pork in its diet

Pork fat is delicious. But might it also be the grease that is needed to unlock dysfunctional Washington, D.C.?

Former Rep. George Nethercutt is making that case, sort of. Nethercutt, the man who unseated Tom Foley in 1994, has written a defense of something that few support: congressional earmarks. Writing in last week’s Inlander, Nethercutt argued that earmarks – the supposed tool of cronyism and spendthrift government – are needed, within reason, to improve the toxic and broken political system.

Earmarks went out with the tea-water in 2010, and the House has stuck with a ban on them since then. Opposing earmarks and pork is a salty political treat; everyone eats it up. Earmarks bad. It might be the sole point of agreement between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

But Nethercutt argues that more pork – or, in his words, “a measured, responsible earmark policy” – might produce more agreement between players separated by chasms of beliefs and goals. Who knows if he’s right; some of it was surely slimy. But in light of what we’re seeing now – the preposterous levels of conflict, the tacit acknowledgment that certain problems are simply not going to be addressed – how horrible does a little horse-trading for road projects sound?

Start with this: Earmarks, for all their supposed budgetary cholesterol, made up a tiny part of the federal budget. The Office of Management and Budget puts the figure most recently at less than one-third of 1 percent. Others calculate it slightly higher: 1 percent. Targeting earmarks is political grandstanding; it’s a way for politicians to signify they’re serious about the budget without doing much about the budget.

Plus, the earmark ban is more talk than walk; there is now a system of backchannel requests, in which lawmakers seek project funding through the bureaucratic appropriations process. The losers in this system are those with the least political pull, and those who’d like a clearer picture of who’s asking for what.

Earmarking is the process by which legislators attach funding for special projects back home to budget bills. At their recent peak following 9/11, they were out of control. But in recent years, their use had been scaled back under a system that made them more transparent and accountable.

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that tracks earmarks, defense budget earmarks dropped from $10.3 billion in 2010 to about $2 billion in 2012. What’s replaced all that earmarking, the group says, is a less transparent and accountable system.

According to the OMB, in 2010, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sponsored earmarks for several local projects that most of us would be hard-pressed to object to. (Final appropriations were not always the same as the original earmark.)

One of these was $2 million for the new interchange at U.S. Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road. That notorious intersection was the site of a 16-year-old girl’s crash death in 2009; the new project, also funded by state money and nearing completion, will be a boon to public safety and transportation.

Also earmarked in 2010: $400,000 for the North Spokane Corridor, $2 million for epigenetic research at Washington State University, $350,000 for a public health initiative. There was also money for water quality research, potato studies and a regional barley gene mapping project.

Sen. Patty Murray’s 2010 earmarks – and she marked many more ears than McMorris Rodgers – included $2 million to complete the Fish Lake trail, which is a great addition to the region. They also included money for the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge, the replacement of roads washed out in landslides and an emergency operations center in Lincoln County.

Nethercutt argued that when he was in Congress, he supported a tightly controlled earmark process in part because it helps return “some federal taxes to the district from which they came. That was much better than having the federal government decide what was best for Eastern Washington.”

But his larger point is that earmarks help grease the wheels of getting along. It allows negotiations in which the losers are able to get something for making a hard vote. These are precisely the arguments against them, of course; uncontrolled, they can represent crony politics at their worst, and they replace principle with self-interest.

Which is a little like complaining that the drinks at a brothel are criminally expensive.

Earmarks may not be the salve for what ails Washington, D.C. But they’re not politics at their worst. That’s what the purists have been giving us lately.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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