Pork Part 1: Earmarks vs. Grants

Both candidates in the 29th are trying to make pork a major issue in the 2008 race. Most of Randy Kuhl's press releases tout the arrival of federal money in the district. Eric Massa has made Kuhl's habit of voting against bills that contain his earmarks a frequent topic of his press conferences and press releases. Though the term "pork" gets thrown around frequently, there's not a lot of discussion of the nitty-gritty details of federal money entering the district. Today, in the first of a multi-part series on pork, I'll examine the difference between a grant and an earmark.

Let's say you're on a town board somewhere in the 29th district. Assume that your water system is broken, or perhaps you have an intersection that needs widening. Your town doesn't have the money, so you need to look somewhere else for funding: the federal government.

There are many ways to get federal funding for an ad hoc local project. To make things simple, I'm going to look at two that occupy most of Randy Kuhl's press releases: earmarks and grants. Let's start with grants.

Federal grants are blocks of money appropriated by Congress and administered by an agency in the executive branch. For example, if your problem is an intersection, the grant might be administered by the Department of Transportation. When Congress wrote the law appropriating the money for the grant, they also put a set of requirements down for distributing the grant money. Perhaps the grant is for rural areas, or maybe it is for poor areas, or for "critical infrastructure". Whatever the requirements, the federal agency administering the grant uses the legislative guidance from Congress to create a set of requirements for receiving the grant. Your intersection must meet those requirements.

To show that you meet the requirements, you need to write a grant application. Because requirements are complicated, "grant-writing" is an art form unto itself, and consultants are often used to wordsmith grants. Once the grant application is written, it is reviewed by a career civil servant (a.k.a., a "bureaucrat"). If the grant meets all the requirements, and there's enough money to go around, your project gets funded.

That's obviously a long, drawn-out process. The alternative is an earmark, which is a targeted appropriation for your intersection. To get an earmark, you need to convince another set of folks: your Congressman and/or Senators. You call their staff, convince the staff that what you want is important to a vital constituency, and then, if you're lucky, your Congressman will insert your funding request into a bill as an earmark. Once the earmark is placed and the bill is signed into law by the President, you get your money.

This is probably a simpler process, but it has its downside, too. If you live in a part of the district full of members of the other party, your Congressman might not think that your earmark is as important as some others in the "right place". Maybe your Congressman has spent his earmarks on other priorities. Or perhaps you have a feud with him about something else. Since earmarks are person-to-person politics, your ability to get an earmark relies on your political skills.

So which is better? It obviously depends on where you're sitting. Beneficiaries of the status quo, like Randy Kuhl, think earmarks are great. In a recent article in the Corning Leader, Eric Massa's criticism of pork-barrel funding in the 29th brought this retort from Randy Kuhl's spokesman, Bob Van Wicklin:

Randy knows the district better than the bureaucrats in Washington D.C. [...] The 29th Congressional District isn’t the highest priority on their list, but it is the highest priority on Randy’s list.

Van Wicklin's argument is one commonly heard in the earmark discussion. If you're concerned with issues like corruption and fairness, you might point out that civil servants implementing federal regulations are less likely to be swayed by political considerations. Bureaucrats might not know the district, but they might know better than to fund a "bridge to nowhere", and they certainly wouldn't fund it unless there's a government grant program for bridges to empty islands.

My take on the grants vs. earmarks controversy is that New Yorkers should support neither mode of federal funding. In the next post in this series, I'll explain why.