Earmarking: Is it fair?

The D.C. Council approved a $5.4 billion local funds budget Tuesday. One pot of money took up a considerable amount of time and energy this budget season for the mayor and some council members, even though it amounted to just one half of one percent of the city’s overall spending plan.

We’re referring to the approximately $22 million put toward earmarks-the noncompetitive allocation of taxpayer dollars to nongovernmental organizations and projects. Groups on the list this year include the Kennedy Center ($250,000), the National Council of Negro Women ($1,000,000), and the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce ($100,000).

In some ways, the process was better this year. The mayor and council stuck mostly to a $250,000 per-group limit imposed after last year’s budget season, and earmarks were less than last year’s total of nearly $40 million.

Yet the process remains problematic in terms of good budgeting and overall fairness. Earmarking bypasses public input and scrutiny. There are no public hearings and no competitive award process, such as a request for proposals, to select recipients. In the end, groups who have ties to council members or might be important to a re-election bid get money, and those who do similar work but lack connections end up empty handed.

Other disparities became evident this budget cycle. Groups located in Ward 1 made up approximately one-third of the recipients. Why? The council member who represents that part of town, Jim Graham, is chair of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. That committee generates large sources of revenue, mostly from parking and litter law enforcement. While many of the groups that got these earmarks do valuable work, other groups doing equally valuable work-let’s say youth mentoring or job training- but in other wards didn’t have an equal shot at the money.

One proposal to level the playing field is to appropriate a certain amount of money to a community fund that would be divided equally among councilmembers. Under this system, the size of the earmark pot would be known and capped each year. There would be an even distribution of dollars across the city. Council members could spend the budget season thinking about important public policy priorities rather than scrounging for earmark funds. And groups seeking funds would have to make a strong case that they deserve the funds, bringing an element of competition back into the process.