Posted on May 19, 2010
By Lamar Alexander
In 2007, the Corps of Engineers told me that two big flood control dams on the Cumberland River system were near failure. I asked for and Congress approved $120 million to begin repairing Center Hill and Wolf Creek dams.
During the recent flood, these repairs kept water levels higher behind these dams, which in turn kept millions of gallons out of the Cumberland River. According to the Corps, if Wolf Creek Dam had failed, flooding in Nashville would have been 4 feet higher. My $120 million appropriation request was called an “earmark.”
Here is another “earmark.” In 2003, 40 Clarksville community leaders visited me in Washington. They and the commander of the 101st Airborne, Gen. David Petraeus, wanted new housing for soldiers returning from Iraq. This was their top priority, but the money was not in President George W. Bush’s budget. Over three years, I asked for $196 million. Congress approved. By 2007, when the most-deployed troops in America came home, new housing was ready.
Some say abolishing such earmarks will help solve Washington’s out-of-control spending. I say this is a hoax, for two reasons:
1. Abolishing earmarks doesn’t reduce the federal debt one penny. If I ask for a Tennessee project and Congress approves, other spending in the budget is reduced by an equal amount. This debate over earmarks is a sideshow. The main show is the Democratic budget that would double the federal debt in five years and triple it in 10. The way to control federal spending is, first, to limit growth of discretionary spending to 2 percent a year (40 percent of the budget) and, second, to slow down automatic entitlement spending (most of the rest of the budget). Earmarks total 1 percent of all spending (and, again, earmarks add zero to total spending.)
2. Under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, only Congress — not the president — appropriates funds. When Tennesseans come to see me about making Center Hill and Wolf Creek dams safe or improving housing at Fort Campbell, my job is not to give them President Obama’s telephone number.
Some appropriations are vital
Then, you might ask, why all the fuss? Because some members of Congress have abused earmarks. Some ask for silly ones. Some ask for too many. Two were convicted of taking campaign contributions in exchange for recommending projects. Perhaps a senator is more likely to vote for a bill that includes his or her appropriations amendment — but this can be said about any amendment to any bill.
My view is that if you have a couple of bad acts on the Grand Ole Opry, you don’t cancel the Opry, you cancel the acts. That’s why some congressmen lose elections and some are in jail. That’s why Congress ended middle-of-the-night earmarks and even required its members to attest that appropriations do not benefit them or their families. That’s why two years ago I voted for a one-year moratorium on earmarks to encourage more reforms. Now I am co-sponsoring Sen. Tom Coburn’s legislation to put all earmarks on one website to make them easier to find. (Tennessee projects already are on my website.)
Some specific appropriations are vital to our state, and to our country. The Human Genome Project was an earmark. The Manhattan Project that won World War II was an earmark.
It might be easier for me to say, “OK, no more earmarks.” Then I wouldn’t have to explain them in articles like this. But how would I explain to Clarksvillians why soldiers returning from Iraq didn’t get new housing or to Nashvillians why the water was 4 feet higher during the flood? Make no mistake: If I had not asked, there would not have been enough federal money for that housing or to repair those dams.
Just last week, the president asked for specific appropriations for the Gulf Coast oil spill, but not for flooding in 52 Tennessee counties. I did ask, and the Senate Committee approved. I did not want Washington to overlook the worst natural disaster since the president took office just because Tennesseans are cleaning up and helping one another instead of complaining and looting.
Sometimes the job I was elected to do includes asking Congress to fund worthwhile Tennessee projects.