Following their party’s Congressional victories in the mid-term elections, the Republican leadership began announcing how the GOP-led House of Representatives would conduct business in 2011. One of their earliest proclamations was a ban on earmarks, a legislative procedure that allows members of Congress to
direct funds to specific projects. Never mind the small fraction of the budget they make up to and the arguments in favor of earmarks, The New York Times reports that some members of Congress have found ways around the new ban. Would you be surprised if I told you that some of the very same representatives who supported banning earmarks have engaged in lettermarking and phonemarking? Both are procedures that allow representatives to allocate funds for specific projects. The only major difference is the manner in which the request occurs.
The issue of earmarking, on the federal level, comes up during election season and the beginning of most Congressional sessions, but fades away as the budget process commences anew and those challengers who railed against earmarks on the campaign trail temper their rhetoric as they become incumbents eying the next election cycle. It is this cyclical dance that makes The New York Times article, published on January 1, about the earmark distribution by the New York City Council enlightening and frustrating.
Each year, every Council member receives $260,000 for youth and senior services within their district. On top of this, Council Speaker Christine Quinn has an additional $18 million dollars that is distributed to members of the Council. The Times article highlights the disparity in funds distributed to Council members who represent needy districts in comparison to their colleagues who serve more affluent areas.
According to the article, Quinn wields this power of the purse to award those who
support her and punish those legislators who run afoul of her leadership. For instance, Charles Barron and Lewis Fidler represent neighboring districts. Barron, who ran against Quinn for the speakership last year and has consistently been “one of the Council’s most incendiary members, received about $137,000. Fidler, a member of Quinn’s leadership team, received $937,000 last year. Barron’s district has a significantly lower median income and struggles with rampant violence.
Barron, with his hyperbolic rhetoric and bellicosity, isn’t the only council member representing a poor neighborhood who is a loser in the earmarks game. The South Bronx’s Helen Foster received about $80,000, while Ydanis Rodriguez, whose district includes Washington Heights and Inwood, was granted $200,000. The Times notes that Councilman Joel Rivera received $700,000. Rivera, from the Bronx, serves as the Council’s majority leader.
Quinn’s critics cite another incident where she used these discretionary grants to punish a Council member. Last year, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley was tied, along with the under-indictment Larry Seabrook for last in earmarked funds at $80,000. Ironically, Seabrook’s federal indictment alleged he misused Council discretionary funds. What did Crowley do? Amidst budget negotiations, she took credit for saving a slew of firehouses and in the process, angered the legislative body’s leaders.
It’s important to note that this article is an early attack in what will most likely be a rollicking 2013 Democratic primary for mayor. Is there any other reason Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is quoted in this article, slamming the manner in which Christine Quinn runs the City Council. Both are presumptive candidates for mayor in 2013 and Stringer is looking to define Quinn early in the cycle and make a name for himself before other candidates do so. Why else is he releasing his own report on the Council and earmarks?
In the article, Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizen’s Union, suggests that the Council parcel out the funds equally amongst the districts. Dadey’s proposal is well intentioned but poorly thought out. A greater need for these Council grants exists in the poorer Council districts and a one-size fits all allocation of funds would be a disservice to the residents of those communities.
Equally as important is that someone needs to remind Speaker Quinn that just because she gets to distribute the funds, it does not make the money hers. I realize how naive this sounds, but she has no right to punish a district, who would be best served by getting more funds, because their representative is a thorn in her and her agenda’s side. The money comes from New Yorkers. They want these funds, their tax dollars, used to make the city as successful, safe, and rewarding for themselves and as many of their fellow residents as possible. They do not want their taxes used as a reward for those who acquiesce to Quinn and her leadership team.. Not only is it a misuse of the money entrusted to her, it is a disservice to those who desperately need as much assistance as possible in these trying economic times.
One last note: What was The New York Times thinking on this one? This is an important article, especially with budgets getting cut, and social services being downsized. With a less government assistance being made available, there should be a greater focus on the litmus test used for allocating funds. That is what this article does, but to publish it on January 1, 2010 makes no sense. It got no momentum and turned into a non-story. As important as it was, it wasn’t time sensitive. A few days later, people are back from vacation, not working off their collective NYE hangovers, and are once again paying attention to the news. Poor form, New York Times.