If you watched recent tv news coverage of the passage of the Omnibus spending bill, you would learn that this "massive" bill was "loaded with pork" — a monument to irresponsible, wasteful spending. That was tonight’s message from "reporting" on PBS’s News Hour and Judy Woodruff’s interview with Norm Ornstein from AEI. But it was false.
Kwami Holman started by quoting the usual pillars of fiscal responsibility — all Republicans — on how the bill was stuffed with 9,000 earmarks. Woodruff then interviewed Ornstein with questions apparently meant to tease out how outrageous the earmark process was. Except Norm didn’t say that.
Woodruff never asked "was this really a serious problem in this Bill?" Ironically, Ornstein’s actual answers all added up to "no" and "this issue is grossly overstated." Instead we learned the following:
1. An "earmark" is not inherently bad. It’s just one way for Congress to direct how federal dollars are spent. In an earmark, Congress says, "spend $$ for this particular project, i.e., this specific highway."
2. If there’s no earmark, no money is saved; instead Congress allocates money to an agency or department for the general purpose ("highways"), and the agency/department determines how and to whom to allocate the funds.
3. Ornstein suggests there’s no inherent reason for Congress to do one or the other, as long as we have transparency, no corruption behind the scenes, and an opportunity for review before Congress makes its final decision. Competitive bidding can occur either way.
4. Ornstein did not allege there there were any such problems in this bill. He added that only a "few" earmarks have such problems, and he wasn’t talking about any earmarks in this bill.
5. Congress has already improved both transparency and the opportunity for review, though Congress and Obama have suggested more, such as posting proponents’ earmarks in advance on their website and involving the executive in screening proposals before passage.
We also know the total amount of "earmarks" in this bill added up to less than 3 percent of the total spending, counting those (about 40 percent) requested by Republicans and the previous Bush Administration.
So despite the fact that the "earmark problem" was given wide play on all networks, including an opportunity for McCain, Pence and even Obama to grandstand about wasteful spending/pork/earmarks, they were not a serious problem in the Omnibus Bill.
In the meantime, you probably haven’t heard, because the media generally chose not to tell us, that the bill contains significant increased funding for items that had long been underfunded by the Bush Administration. You can think of this as both worthwhile public spending and economic stimulus. Here’s a sampling (increases from Bush budget) from the House Report:
— $938 million more for the National Institute of Health, to help fund 10,600 new research grants;
— $125 million more to provide community health centers for 470,000 ininsured folks;
— $75 million more to states to expand health coverage;
— $26 million more to fund insurance pools for uninsured high risk
— $33 million more for training nurses and other health professionals;
— $27 million more for small, rural hospitals to serve 775,000 in underserved communities.
That’s just a few of the items from one of nine areas of funding. Other lists are here.
No one is suggesting the bill is perfect, or that it contains all the right priorities and nothing else. But Pelosi’s House deserves some credit for redirecting federal spending away from Bush era distortions and along lines that needed more funding, and it’s sad that Obama thinks he has to apologize for signing it.