Posts about Congressional earmarks and earmark reform.

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.

The House Finishes Up

The House finally adjourned for its August recess this morning a little after 1 A.M. During the last 14-hour session, Randy Kuhl voted against the Energy Bill as well as against a bill that would have extended and increased tax incentives for the use of renewable energy. Both of those bills passed the House.

Kuhl voted for an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which included a 6-month sunset provision. This bill was passed after the House failed to pass a bill less to the Bush Administration's liking on Friday. Kuhl voted against that bill. The AP has a pretty good story about the new FISA provisions.

Finally Kuhl, and almost everyone else in the House, voted for the Defense appropriation, which includes $6 million in his earmarks.

Voting Round Up

The House was scheduled to adjourn yesterday for the August recess, but a dust-up on the House floor Thursday night, among other delays, has the House at work today.

Randy Kuhl has been "Mr. No" for the past week. Kuhl did not support any of the major appropriation legislation that reached the floor this week, which included:

  • Increases in funding for the Children's Health and Medicare Protection Act This bill would have added $30 billion in funding to add 3 million more children to the S-CHIP program, which is a joint state-federal plan to insure children whose parents have incomes above the poverty line. The bill is funded in part by an increase in the tax on tobacco.
  • The appropriation bill for the Department of Agriculture, FDA and related agencies. Kuhl voted "present" on this bill, since it was part of the dispute mentioned above. Most Republicans were absent for the vote. Even though Kuhl serves on the Agriculture committee, he had no earmarks in the bill.

Both appropriation bills passed the House, though the S-CHIP authorization is under veto threat from the President. Kuhl also voted against two other national-security related bills. The first was a bill mandating that active duty, guard and reserve troops will have a home rotation equal to the amount of time they are on duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. The final bill that Kuhl opposed this week was the reauthorization of the FISA surveillance program. That bill failed by a few votes.

This Week in Votes and Earmarks

Randy Kuhl voted for the Farm Bill, which included a significant increase in funding for specialty crops. McClatchy has a good Q&A on the bill here. The bill contained no earmarks.

Kuhl voted against the HUD and Transportation appropriation bill, H R 3074. That bill included four of his earmarks, worth more than $600,000.

Update: Missed one: Kuhl also had an $800K earmark for Alfred State in the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriation, H R 3093, which he voted against.

Earmark and Pork Review

The earmark page has been updated with all available information about recent earmarks. Last week, Kuhl was criticized for voting against a bill while trumpeting the earmarks he inserted in the bill. Undeterred, he's done the same thing this week. He voted against the Labor, HHS and Education appropriation bill, yet he's also issued a press release touting an earmark for MCC in the bill. Kuhl had five earmarks worth over half a million dollars in the Labor and HHS bill.

Kuhl has also announced a couple of grants (not earmarks) for area projects. In Troupsburg, the announcement was for a new water system, and in Watkins Glen, Seneca Harbor will get some upgrades.

Kuhl Announces New Earmarks

Randy Kuhl's office has announced two new earmarks, both of which benefit colleges in the Southern Tier. Elmira College has earmarks totaling $250,000. $150,000 of that amount will go to refurbishing a hall on campus, and $100,000 will purchase science and technology equipment. Alfred University is up for $900,000, which is split into two grants for programs aimed at helping underprivileged youth.

The earmarks are in three different bills. I'll update the earmark page after tracking down committee reports for the legislation.

Kuhl's Contradictory Votes Make the Paper

Today's Elmira Star-Gazette carries a story about Randy Kuhl's recent votes against major appropriation bills. As mentioned here last month, Kuhl voted against two appropriation bills that included earmarks he sponsored. Even though he voted against the bills, he still touted the earmarks on his website.

Kuhl's explanation for this apparent contradiction contains some topsy-turvy logic:

"The point is the bills passed, so why shouldn't I tell people about the local projects that were in them?" Kuhl said. "They wouldn't have been in there if I hadn't requested them."

Kuhl said he didn't vote for the bills -- with the exception of one that increased spending for veterans and military members -- because he thinks the Democratic majority is increasing spending too much.

As the article points out, Kuhl is clearly trying to have it both ways by saying that only his pork is worthy. One theory, offered by University of Rochester Professor Gerald Gamm, is that Kuhl will get away with this because "constituents are not paying attention to all the details". That may be true, but I think Kuhl will have a second explanation available later this year, after the Senate amends the spending bills.

Kuhl's vote against H R 2669, the College Cost Reduction Act, is another example of a vote against a popular bill. This bill was opposed by a majority of Republicans, for a variety of reasons. Like last month's vote against the Homeland Security bill, voting against an increase in funding for financial aid financed on the back of banks seems like a stone loser for Kuhl. However, like the other appropriations bills Kuhl opposed, this bill has yet to pass through the gauntlet of the Senate.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been making heavy use of cloture rules and the party loyalty of his fellow Republicans to control the agenda of the Senate. The ability of Republicans to block debate on bills is a powerful lever that the Republicans will use to force compromises on the appropriations bills passed by the House. After those bills have been amended, they will go back to the House for a vote. I'll wager that they'll get Kuhl's support the second time around.

The combination of Bush's veto threats, the loyalty of Republicans like Randy Kuhl in the House, and the lack of a 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate is one that allows the Republicans to exert significant control over the legislative process. When Kuhl is challenged by the press or his opponent to explain his initial no votes, he'll point to changes in the bills to show that his no vote led to a more fiscally responsible bill.

Whether that's true will, indeed, require exceedingly close attention to the details.

Update: The same story made the July 16 issue of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

Racking Up the No Votes

Randy Kuhl has voted against the major appropriations bills that have come before Congress in the last two weeks. This week's no votes on the Interior and Environment and Financial Services and General Government bills are interesting because each was accompanied by a press release (here and here) touting Kuhl-sponsored earmarks in those bills.

Kuhl has not explained his votes against these or any other appropriations bills. None of the appropriations bills have passed with veto-proof majorities. Most of the bills passed are under veto threat from the White House. Kuhl's vote with his party helps to give those veto threats some credibility, which in turn gives Senate Republicans leverage to remove or reduce appropriations that aren't in line with the Republican agenda.

If Kuhl votes for the final, compromise version of the bill, he can have it both ways: He can claim that he ultimately voted for the appropriation (and his earmarks), even though he initially opposed the bill.

Earmark Watch

In today's Hornell Evening Tribune, Randy Kuhl explains how Republicans forced the Democrats to compromise on earmarks. According to Kuhl, Democrats were trying to "sneak through" earmarks and the Republicans stopped them.

Since earmarks are now being disclosed, I've added a new page, Earmark Watch, where I'll attempt to track all of Kuhl's earmarks. I've also added a new category, Earmarks, which I'll use to tag stories about earmarks.

This all assumes that I'll be able to track down the damn things. As per usual, the committees are making this as hard as possible, releasing the earmarks as non-searchable image pdfs [warning: huge pdf]. This tactic, which was also used by the New York legislature, means that I have to paw through supplemental committee reports line-by-line to find Kuhl's earmarks. I assume that some public interest watchdog will create an earmark database. Until then, consider the earmark page a "best effort" rather than an authoritative source.

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