BILL CRAWFORD: Lobbyists big winners in earmark war

By Bill Crawford

Earmarks have been a boon to Mississippi. Consider that Mississippi, one of the smallest states, ranked second only to California, one of the largest, in getting earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Reports show Mississippi received $2.1 billion in congressional earmarks since 2008.
Our access to earmarks has been facilitated by the rise of Sen. Thad Cochran to top positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee. As chairman or ranking member, Cochran has been able to direct millions of dollars toward home.
For example, in the omnibus spending bill that failed this past December the Senator had inserted 281 earmarks worth $561 million. These included the largest earmark in the bill, $34.9 million for Delta Health Alliance, $17 million for Stennis Space Center, $21.7 million for a Gulf Coast weapons test facility, and $20.8 million for a Homeland Security center.
Sen. Roger Wicker, who co-sponsored many earmarks along with Sen. Cochran, told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that Mississippi’s access to federal largess will not go away.
What he means is that the money previously allocated for earmarks will still be included in appropriations bills. The only change will be who decides who gets it. The revised process puts the money in the hands of federal agencies. So, the secretary of this or that agency will have discretion over who gets the money.
But, senior lawmakers like Cochran will still have influence.
When those secretaries come before the Senate Appropriations Committee with their budget requests, the committee will move what was earmark money into “discretionary funding.” In so doing, the chairman and other senior committee members will “suggest” to the secretaries a project or two that should be funded. A smart secretary will understand this means “to get your agency funded you better spend some of your discretionary money like I say.”
History shows that this hint-hint-wink-wink process results in fewer projects getting dollars. Of course, not all the discretionary money will be used up by these “soft earmarks.” The various secretaries will decide what projects get the remaining funds.
So which projects will get the money?
Probably no group will have more influence on this than lobbyists. They have access and means to get to senior congressmen, agency Secretaries, and their key staff members to influence decisions. The best lobbyists will still get their clients’ projects funded and rack up. Weaker lobbyists may struggle.
All this means that the same money will be spent as before, with far less transparency, no deficit reduction will occur, and lobbyists will be more important than ever.
Not what you expected, huh?
Hopefully, Wicker is right and Mississippi will still get a major share of the money.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian. Contact him at crawfolk@att.net.