Sunday, April 6, 2008

Soft earmarks and Hard earmarks

How to spot a soft earmark? Easy. The language is that of a respectful suggestion: A committee “endorses” or notes it “is aware” of deserving programs and “urges” or “recommends” that agencies finance them.

That was how taxpayer money was requested last year for a Christian broadcasting group to build a shortwave radio station in Madagascar, a program to save hawks in Haiti, efforts to fight agriculture pests in Maryland and an “international fertilizer” center in Alabama that assists farmers overseas.

After hard earmarks figured into several Congressional scandals and prompted criticism of wasteful spending from government agencies and watchdog groups, Congress cut back on their number last year and required disclosure of most of them. (There were more than 10,000, costing nearly $20 billion last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

But soft earmarks, while not a new phenomenon, have drawn virtually no attention and were not included in the ethics changes — and current ones under consideration — because Congress does not view them as true earmarks.

Their total cost is not known. But the research service found that they amounted to more than $3 billion in one spending bill alone in 2006, out of 13 annual appropriations bills. And the committee that handles the bill, which involves foreign operations, has increasingly converted hard earmarks to soft ones.

“This shows that even though lawmakers now have to disclose their pet projects, we’re not getting a full accounting of earmarks,” said Ryan Alexander, director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group in Washington that tracks earmarks. “We may just be looking at the tip of the iceberg.”

Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said he did not believe gentler language changed anything when it came to pork-barrel spending.

“No matter what you want to call it, an earmark is an earmark,” said Mr. Flake, a longtime foe of earmarks. “If Congressional leaders don’t believe that soft earmarks are earmarks, then I think that makes the case as to why we need tougher reforms in place.”

Soft earmarks are included in a number of spending measures, but they tend to occur more frequently in spending bills that give money to the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and other foreign aid programs.

Federal agencies are not required to finance soft earmarks. However, officials have traditionally felt obliged to comply with such requests.

“Soft earmarks, while not legally binding, frequently come with an implicit threat: If you don’t take our suggestions, we will give you a hard earmark next,” said Andrew Natsios, former administrator of A.I.D. in the Bush administration.

In its report, the Congressional Research Service said agencies also could face budget cuts if they did not finance soft earmarks.

-Pork Barrel Remains Hidden in U.S. Budget

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