When Is an Earmark Not an Earmark?

From President Obama’s speech to Congress Tuesday evening:

I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities.

No earmarks among the $787 billion authorized in the bill’s 1,073 pages?

As MSNBC reported, using Congress’s own 2007 definition of earmark as “language that aims spending at specific programs, states or localities, often at a member’s request”:

Specific location? The Senate stimulus contains $50 million for habitat restoration and other water needs in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is another $62 million for military projects in Guam.

Specific industry? The House bill includes an amendment authored by Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley setting aside $500 million for biofuel makers, which he says, would bring jobs home to Iowa.

Specific program? There’s $198 million to compensate Filipino World War II veterans for their service. Most don’t live in the United States.

And even some Members of Congress admitted the “earmark-free” stimulus bill contained de facto earmarks:

“While this bill does not include traditional earmarks, we should all understand that there are earmarks in this bill,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. “There is $850 million … to bail out Amtrak, a $75 million earmark for the Smithsonian, a $1 billion earmark for the 2010 census.”

Even if you buy the president’s definition of “earmarks”—as some bought President Clinton’s definition of “is”—Congress made up for its earmark “restraint” with its approval today of a new $410 billion dollar package—it contains 8,570 earmarks at a cost of $7.7 billion.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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