We’ve all heard about congressional “earmarks” — the sly, sleazy and virtually invisible process by which members of Congress direct money to their favorite projects.
It’s simple — just stick some language into the multi-thousand page annual appropriations bill providing for such funding and it’s done.
It would be nice if we could put an end to earmarking, just as it would be nice if all members of congress were fiscally responsible, upright individuals who would never countenance such practices … dream on!
We have to live in the world as it is, not the world as we might wish it to be. That said, are we getting our fair (or unfair!) share of earmarks?
You’d think we’d be drowning in lavishly funded projects of dubious national benefit, wouldn’t you? After all, we’re a staunchly Republican city, represented for more than 20 years by a Republican congressman, with at least one, and often two, Republican senators from Colorado.
And didn’t we vote for George Bush in 2000, and again in 2004? And don’t we have a Republican governor? And don’t the Republicans control both houses of congress?
Let’s do a little analysis.
If you exclude military construction funding and transportation funding from the mix, since such funding reflects statewide and national priorities, you get a sense of just how effective our own lobbyists and elected officials have been.
So how have we done?
What have the efforts of Sens. Allard, Nighthorse Campbell, Salazar, Rep. Hefley, Mayor Rivera, the EDC, the chamber, the county and miscellaneous hired guns done for us?
Thanks to a study by the Rocky Mountain News, the results are plain to see.
The answer: not much.
Between 2000 and 2006, Colorado Springs benefited from exactly three earmarks, for a total of $3.1 million. That works out to $8 per resident.
Sounds OK, unless you compare our total with that of Montrose (population 14,771), which pulled in $7.9 million, or $536 per inhabitant, or Denver (10 earmarks, $19.2 million, $35 per resident), or Nighthorse Campbell’s home town, Ignacio, whose 686 inhabitants got $250,000, or $313 per head.
But we should all bow to tiny Rico (population 216), whose million-dollar earmark was worth a cool $4,630 per resident.
Most earmarks are for useful and worthwhile projects — water treatment plants, senior centers, museums and the like. The Midwest rain forests and the multi-hundred million dollar bridges to nowhere are the exception, not the rule.
But the earmarking process is visibly capricious, unfair and unpredictable — like life itself.
Any student of Politics 101 would tell you that we ought to do better than Denver.
Our neighbor to the north is, after all, a liberal bastion in a conservative state, represented by a tough, argumentative liberal woman, Diana Degette.
And, let us note, the doughty Ms. Degette has not hesitated to openly and effectively oppose President Bush on the question of embryonic stem cells.
And not only has our congressman supported the president pretty much across the board, one of his biggest allies on the stem cell controversy, Dr. James Dobson, lives right here in River City.
So what’s going on? It’s not as if we don’t have worthy candidates for earmarking.
How about fixing up the City Auditorium, or building a new summit house on Pikes Peak or doing some improvements at Evergreen Cemetery, or …?
There are, I’d guess, two reasons for our lack of success. One is that because our local leaders focus so much of their attention on retaining/expanding our military installations, they ignore everything else. That’s the charitable explanation.
The other — simple incompetence. Earmarking is a subtle, largely invisible process, where personal connections, agile horsetrading and powerful committee positions count for much.
Given the record, it’s pretty clear that the city ought to hire new lobbyists, and that our new congressman, whoever he may be, had better hire smart, experienced, able staff members.
And let me suggest that Mayor Rivera call a man named Kenneth Lee, who was profiled recently in the Rocky Mountain News.
He’s an observant Mormon who eschews tobacco and alcohol, and the volunteer director of a Maryland food bank, an exemplary individual who spends his time delivering food to the needy. Doesn’t sound as if he’d be much good in Washington, does it? I’d guess that he’s never even seen the inside of Jack Abramoff’s notorious restaurant.
But he’s a lobbyist. He represents little towns no one in Washington has ever heard of — Rico and Montrose. Do you think Dr. Dobson might be persuaded to call him on our behalf?
Meanwhile, as if an election in November weren’t enough, those of us who live in School District 11 will get another in December. Impressively, recall proponents managed to get 15,000 signatures on petitions supporting the recall of Sandy Shakes and Eric Christen.
Recall proponents claim that D-11 residents are fed up with the know-nothing “reform” agenda espoused most visibly by Christen.
Christen’s supporters, by contrast, believe that the recall is the work of out-of-touch liberals, many of whom have a vested interest in the continuance of the failed policies of former decades.
Each side believes that truth and history is with them, and each believes that, should their opponents prevail, it’ll only be through lies, deceit and dirty politics.
So what do the voters want? We’ll find out — but, based on the folks I’ve spoken to who don’t have a dog in this fight, they just want an end to the craziness. Whether ending the craziness translates to a “yes” vote is by no means certain.
The big question: Will Steve Schuck and his deep-pocketed friends, who supported Christen and Shakes three years ago, step up and protect their investment, or do they see them as albatrosses, more trouble than they’re worth?
Politically, it might make sense for Steve and his pals to wait for regularly scheduled board elections a year hence, when four seats — a board majority — will once more be in play. They could then throw their support behind a fresh slate of candidates, including incumbent Willie Breazell.
In such a scenario, they’d dump the confrontational Craig Cox, and find three qualified, non-threatening reformers, who would move carefully and deliberately to implement a reform agenda. Otherwise, assuming that Christen and Shakes retained their seats, Schuck & Co. would be stuck with them — and their negatives.
So maybe it would be best to throw them to the wolves — or, better still, hire them to lobby for the city.
A nice, fat earmark — for a voucher program!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext 241.