Several troubling reports about draft transportation legislation have emerged in recent days. One, as reported in Congressional Quarterly, seems ripped from the headlines of the Onion (a satirical paper), "Earmark Computer Crashes, Delaying Transportation Bill." A second, reported by Roll Call, reads "Oberstar Less Stringent on Earmarks." Despite the unwanted notoriety Congress gained in the wake of the Bridge to Nowhere, earmarks still persist, and they remain a highly visible benchmark by which the public follows and judges transportation legislation.
The general concept behind earmarks is not misunderstood: people know that legislators want to "bring home the bacon" to their constituents. What is less clear are the negative secondary effects of this pork. Earmarks remain a relatively small part of the overall transportation budget, but like a canary dying in a coal mine they are indicative of more serious and deeper problems. The most pressing concern is that many earmarks are not directed to projects of national, or even regional, significance. Even if some of them are, they were not necessarily submitted or judged with that criteria in mind. Earmarks targeted for specific districts without any evaluation of their national merits are fundamentally at odds with the proposition that federal funds should be spent for national purposes, what we might call a "national compromise."
If earmarks play even half as prominent role as they did in the last authorization, the whole piece of legislation will most likely be tainted, regardless of its other merits. For better or worse, the public has never been able to engage in transportation debate at the national level like it can on many other issues. Transportation legislation is simply too opaque, too non-partisan, and the outcomes too detached, to draw anything but cursory attention from the general media, never inciting the sort of mass emails and faxes that topics like healthcare and gas prices engender. Without a clear sense of how to judge transportation legislation, the media and the public have latched onto earmarks as a leading metric of success. Deep down, people know that earmarks are not a positive example of what economists call the "invisible hand." What is good for them and their representative is not necessarily good for the nation as a whole. The sum of all earmarks is less than the parts.
If it is to be bold and effective, the next transportation authorization needs a broader base of public support than SAFETEA-LU. That will mean more transparency, more clarity about goals, more accountability, and more public support for the overall strategy - because the public needs to buy into however this new program will be funded. These concepts are also at the heart of a legitimate "national compromise." Regardless of their merits, earmarks simply must be contained and limited or else they will threaten every other aspect of reform.