In a recent piece about earmarks I asked, “How long will it be before members who care about an issue like climate change, for instance, realize that empowering Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology isn’t a great strategy?”
The answer seems to be, not long.
Today, E&E News’ ClimateWire reports that “Congress earmarks climate grants for rich, white areas.”
E&E reporter Thomas Frank writes:
Members of Congress used earmarks to steer millions of dollars to affluent, largely white communities through a federal climate-mitigation program that is supposed to prioritize helping disadvantaged communities, an E&E News analysis shows.
Lawmakers included a total of 68 earmarks worth $154 million for FEMA’s climate-grant program in the Homeland Security spending bill. The program, called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, has $1 billion to give this year to states and localities for projects that build long-term resilience to hazards including flooding, wildfire and storms.
The BRIC program is highly competitive and central to the federal effort to address climate change, which raises questions about the fairness of earmarked projects. FEMA received applications this year seeking a total of $4.2 billion in BRIC grants — more than four times as much money as the agency has available to distribute.
Congress had this same debate in the 2000s and was a major reason why earmarks were banned. More than a decade ago reformers asked the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) how earmarks impacted our nation’s infrastructure. DOT found that earmarks diverted funds from higher priority projects (i.e. preventing bridge collapses) to lower priority member-driven projects. Meanwhile, a 2009 Harvard study found that congressional districts that receive a disproportionate share of earmarks suffer economically.
As E&E reports, Carlos Martín, an expert on disaster policy at the Brookings Institution said earmarks mean BRIC “is not a competitive program anymore, so you’re not rewarding projects based on their merit and the criteria that are established every year.”
For all of Warren’s virtue signaling about “equity” her embrace of earmarks will promote income equality and disproportionately hurt lower-income communities. Federal dollars should be allocated based on need and in the context of a transparent debate about competing priorities. Earmarks short-circuit that process and hand out money based on what entity can hire the best lobbyist and has the best relationship with a member of Congress and their staff.
With Congress invested in rebuilding the “earmark favor factory” taxpayers can expect more examples of waste and corruption.