11:54am

Wed January 19, 2011
Politics

Life after earmarks

When the lame duck Congress failed to pass an omnibus spending bill last December, $32 million in earmarks for western New York projects dried up - at least temporarily. Now securing these funds is a more complicated and risky process, with a moratorium set in place by the new Republican majority in the House.

Mike Pietkiewicz, with the University at Buffalo’s Government and Community Relations Department, says "earmark" has become a dirty word, although that type of spending is just a fraction of a percent of the federal budget.

“I’m just not sure that anybody is willing to stand up if the spotlight were being shown on them to say, ‘Yeah, this is making a mountain out of a molehill',” Pietkiewicz says.

But Senator Chuck Schumer is one of those people.

“I put ‘Schumer’ proudly on every earmark. And there are some people who request earmarks and I say, ‘This is not a good enough project. Or I don’t know if the money will be spent well'. And I don’t submit them. But every earmark I submit has my name on it and I’m proud to defend it in public,” Schumer says.

But even Schumer’s influence and enthusiasm will not immediately be able to restore the mechanism by which tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money is brought back for local projects like the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

UB’s Pietkiewicz says the earmark battle is fluid, and there are other ways to secure funds, like direct grants from federal agencies, and the competitive grant process. But he admits these routes are uncertain, and may prove to be more work than some organizations are willing to put in. 

Some House Republicans that voted for the earmark moratorium are now saying they want to reform the process, instead of enacting a full ban, Schumer says, prompting him to pursue talks to make the process more transparent.