Earmarks may not be the most expensive problem in Washington D.C., but they do snag a lot of the press when it comes to budget news. While earmarks generally total less than 2 percent of the federal budget, they provide an easy target for lawmakers who want to denounce bloated government spending. With the focus on condemning the practice of setting aside money from an appropriations bill for lawmakers’ pet projects, would it surprise you to learn that the same congresspersons who publicly reject earmarking included 6,700 projects worth $8 billion in the latest budget announced by the U.S. House of Representatives?
There is little doubt that some earmarked projects are beneficial to their states and to the country: they stimulate the economy, create jobs, and provide for much-needed infrastructure. They fund projects from defense research to public transportation to educational support programs. However, some earmarks are so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe they were ever proposed. Whether it’s the amount of money requested or the use to which it will be put, these earmarks make it through because there are larger issues at stake. But are lawmakers taking advantage of the process to earn political points?
$192 Million for Rum
Another byproduct of the 2008 bailout, this earmark was added to the legislation in the Senate. It renewed an expired rebate against excise taxes charged on rum imported from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through 2009. The tax cuts went to the two territories, and lobbyists from manufacturers Bacardi and Captain Morgan complained that their companies didn’t see any of the savings.
$5.2 Million for Neon
The Las Vegas Neon Boneyard began as a non-profit organization in 1990, and was founded by artists, community leaders, and the Young Electric Sign Co. It’s been the recipient of federal funds totaling over $5 million in the past decade, including $1.8 million in 2010, earmarked from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management).
$3.4 Million for Turtles
Stimulus funds included over $3 million for a project to construct a “turtle crossing” – a tunnel under Highway 27 in Florida so that wildlife can safely cross the road. This earmark was called out by Senator Tom Coburn’s list of the top 100 wasteful spending items in the stimulus package, but Josh Boan, the Florida Transportation Department’s natural resources manager, defends the project; he says a large number of turtles and other wildlife are killed in the area. Tthe turtles cross the road in search of water, and over 2,000 turtles per mile get squashed on the stretch of roadway every year. In addition, the “eco-passage,” endorsed by Florida’s Department of Transportation, improves highway safety, since turtles hit by moving vehicles can become dangerous projectiles.
$2 Million for Urinals
In 2006, Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, requested $2 million from the Defense appropriations bill for a Navy study exploring the use of “no flush” urinals on board ships and at military installations. An environmental technology firm that produces the waterfree urinals is located in Grand Rapids, in Ehlers’ district, but the congressman said he did not specify that particular company in his request or ask that the money be used to purchase any of the company’s products.
$500,000 for Teapots
In 2006, North Carolina state representative Jim Harrell III, a Democrat, appropriated $400,00 from the state budget for the construction of a teapot museum in the town of Sparta, which then received another $500,000 in federal funds through the Housing and Urban Development budget allocation. While the amount of money requested was negligible in context, the request was widely mocked because of its subject, and eventually won the dubious “Tempest in a Teapot” award. Senator Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx supported the federal appropriation for their home state. Unfortunately, the museum failed to raise enough private funds to cover operations and closed in 2010, having received neither state nor federal money.
$250,000 for Windowsills
Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Seattle, requested the quarter-million for window repair and limestone sill replacement at The Rainier Club. This private club is located in a historic building in Seattle, with 1200 members who pay nearly $200 per month in membership fees. While the money requested is a drop in the bucket in terms of federal funding, the request is unusual; although the 102-year-old building is a designated Seattle city landmark and listed as a historic building by the state, it is not a national historic landmark and therefore doesn’t qualify for funding through existing state historic-preservation grant programs.