Earmarks were banned three years ago because tax-funded bridges to nowhere symbolized corruption in government. So when House Republicans renewed the ban for the 113th Congress in January, Speaker John Boehner said it was a "critical step to restore public trust." That hasn't prevented more than a few congressmen from seeking new ways to continue funneling federal tax dollars - spelled p-o-r-k - to campaign donors, family members, former staffers and favored constituents back home.
Among the workarounds are Miscellaneous Tariff Bills, or duty suspension measures. An MTB provides tariff relief of less than $500,000 per year on imports of items for which there are no domestic manufacturers. While proponents claim MTBs aren't earmarks, they can easily serve as a backdoor alternative. As the Heritage Foundation's Thomas Jones explained in a recent report, the basic steps for earmarks and MTBs are quite similar in the Senate and the House:
• Lobbyists visit congressional offices and ask for a special dispensation.
• Congressmen then select the "causes" they will champion.
• Next, rank-and-file congressmen ask their more influential committee chairmen to insert their special interest provision in broader legislation.
• Finally, the broader bill is approved by Congress and signed into law by the president.
No wonder, Jones notes, that "according to figures from Customs and Border Protection, from 2005 to 2011, about 40% of [MTBs] have benefitted individual companies and the vast majority (about 90%) have helped 10 or fewer." As the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten reported last year, there are often links between the congressmen sponsoring MTBs and the recipient companies. More than 1,000 proposed MTBs are now before Congress.
The Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison recently exposed another way to get around the earmark ban: "letter marks" or requests for money for specific programs. "To borrow the jargon of social media, think of it as 'liking' a request to spend taxpayer dollars," Allison writes. "More signers mean more programmatic requests, which means a better chance to secure the funding." Multiple back-scratching congressmen back each other's letter marks because they don't have to publicly disclose them and ultimately it's an appropriation committee that steers the funds to favored recipients.
Finally, Congress uses commemorative coin bills to direct tax dollars back to their districts without requiring taxpayer funds. First, a member introduces a bill that depicts a national icon in or from their district. Second, the bill is voted on (and nobody opposes things like the March of Dimes coin). The coin is then minted by the Treasury and made available for purchase. The Treasury recaptures its costs through sales to coin buyers, but here's the kicker: Anything beyond the cost of the coin gets sent to the organization depicted on the coin. All thanks to that nice congressman!