Magazine article USA TODAY

Follow the Ca$h

Magazine article USA TODAY

Follow the Ca$h

Article excerpt

"If brought back and pursued with transparency and honesty, earmarks stand to alleviate--through small outlays of cash--a great deal of economic uncertainty, not just for the wealthy and empowered few, but for us all."

IF YOU FEEL moved by a desire to alleviate human suffering and to help make local government better able to meet its constituents' needs, then being a U.S. Senate aide can be a real heartbreaking pursuit. One thing that used to mitigate that heartbreak, though, was the existence of earmarks: legislative provisions that directed approved funds to be spent on specific projects. I know, because from 2007-10, I worked as an aide in the Chicago office of Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.).

One of my many responsibilities was to conduct what is known as "outreach"--to drive out to the collar counties surrounding Chicago and meet with local elected officials, administrators of municipal governments, and employees of community agencies and organizations. In doing so, we aides acted as the senator's eyes and ears: we looked at what these individuals and institutions were doing, and we listened to what they said they wanted from the Federal government to help them better fulfill the needs of the people they sought to serve.

On my countless trips to DuPage and Kane counties, the areas I covered, I met with many wonderful people, from mayors and village managers (dedicated civil servants acting to keep their towns safe and livable) to directors of nonprofit food pantries and homeless shelters (committed advocates who believed that no one in need should be left out in the cold).

I would sit across the table from them and explain that Sen. Durbin cared about their struggles. Then they typically would say that their greatest need was money. Often, this type of request would feel tinged with futility, because there was no money for them to be asking for directly--but back in the days when the earmark system was not the taboo it since has become, it was possible to assuage the sense that the outreach visit had been pointless and depressing by telling them to put together a proposal for an earmark.

We aides would have to manage their expectations, of course, and make it clear that there were very few resources to go around. Yet, we nevertheless could give them a sense of hope that some project of theirs--new streetlights, a substance-abuse treatment initiative, a program to offer education and job training to battered women, or what have you--might stand a fighting chance of becoming affordable through a small degree of Federal support.

I can anticipate what you might be thinking at this point: aren't earmarks just a way to divert funding to wasteful programs that allow politicians to reward their allies while driving up Congressional spending? No, they are not --not if they are awarded and administered properly, out in the open for all to see. For every boondoggle like the Gravina Island Bridge--the "Bridge to Nowhere" built largely at the behest of Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska)--there are innumerable worthwhile projects that were funded by earmarks through a process that frequently is less bureaucratic and truly more democratic than omnibus spending bills and larger appropriations. Done correctly, earmarks can spread small, targeted amounts of money to the people and organizations who need them most, and who frequently can make a relatively modest investment--tens of thousands as opposed to millions--go a very long way toward improving the lives of citizens.

Two telling examples of small earmarks that brought funds directly to populations that needed them most--populations that lack "connections" or "clout," but are deeply deserving of support--were announced in July 2010, shortly before the informal moratorium on earmarks took hold.

In one case, Sen. Durbin helped secure $149,998 in Federal funding for the Chicago Horticultural Society and the Chicago Botanic Garden to pilot the Native Seed Farming Project, a strategy to test the viability of generating native seed stock as a marketable crop for urban farmers. …

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