Alexander Op-Ed in Tennessean: It’s important to ask Congress to fund projects

Posted on May 19, 2010

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.