Washington Insider-- Thursday

A Call to Bring Back Budget Earmarks

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

U.S. Ag Registered 3rd Straight Monthly Trade Deficit in May

U.S. agriculture recorded its third straight monthly trade deficit in May at $88.672 million due to exports valued at $9.777 billion against imports of $9.865 billion, according to USDA's monthly trade update from the Economic Research Service (ERS).

The trade red ink for May was down from the record $387.191 million for April. The three monthly deficits now total $511.215 million.

So far in Fiscal 2016, U.S. ag exports are valued at $86.702 billion against imports of $76.665 billion for a trade surplus of $10.037 billion.

All three areas are behind this point in Fiscal 2015 when exports totaled $100.725 billion, imports were at $76.892 billion for a trade surplus of $23.833 billion.

Total Fiscal 2015 figures were at $139.741 billion for exports, $114.026 billion for imports for a trade surplus of $25.725 billion.

For May, the value of U.S. ag exports actually increased $181 million compared to April while the value of imports fell $118 million, resulting in the much smaller trade deficit in May compared to April.

This marked two months in a row for the value of US ag exports to be under $10 billion. In Fiscal 2015, it took until June for the value of US ag exports to fall under the $10 billion mark where it stayed through September.

GMO Labeling Bill Would Cover Refined Ingredients: USDA

The Senate compromise legislation creating a nationwide disclosure system for foods made with genetically modified ingredients would cover highly refined sugars and oils, according to a USDA letter.

The letter is a response to a request from Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., for the agency to clarify the definition of bioengineering described in the bill.

Critics of the bill have argued that it does not cover some refined ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and canola oil.

The USDA letter also counters a June 27 Food and Drug Administration letter to lawmakers saying the agency had concerns that the bill could "raise confusion" among consumers in terms of what foods would be covered.

Washington Insider: A Call to Bring Back Budget Earmarks

Roll Call is commenting on an argument that "good government" ideas don't always work. It comes from retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who thinks lifting the five-year old "earmark moratorium" would help get more done on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Mikulski, who will retire this fall as the longest-tenured woman in congressional history, is seen as a tough, plain-spoken legislator along with "a tart bit of advice" last week."

"If I could say one thing to all of you: Bring back congressionally directed projects," Mikulski declared to sporadic applause at the final markup of her 30-year career on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She reminisced about some of her prized victories in delivering tens of millions in federal tax dollars to her native Maryland. "I loved the earmarks I could do!"

Mikulski is referring to a practice that was semiofficially shelved five years ago, and which has hardened into an informal prohibition "that's not going to be repealed any time soon."

Maintaining this "earmark moratorium" has become a rare bipartisan article of faith because Republicans and Democrats alike have concluded that, with public approval of Congress mired in a sustained and deep swoon, steering taxpayer dollars back home was doing them more harm than good.

However, Mikulski says that reasoning "overlooks the fact that pork helped grease the wheels that make Congress run." In fact, earmarks never steered more than 3% of appropriations—but, they almost guaranteed the routine passage, generally with solid bipartisan majorities, of most regular spending bills, she said.

Initially, lawmakers decided to keep earmarks but increase the public disclosure in an effort to allow members to prove their "newfound piety." At the same time, it permitted continued trips to the trough for those concluding their re-election prospects or Capitol power profiles would benefit. And it allowed lobbyists to pursue federal cash for their municipal, medical center and university clients.

That worked only briefly and the process now is frequently derided by good-government types as the worst of all worlds: Billions are effectively getting earmarked every year under a slightly different set of ground rules. The transparency systems are largely ignored.

Relatively few members, mostly from top seats on the Appropriations panels, wrangle tens of millions for big-ticket projects the administration hasn't requested, and Congress hasn't otherwise authorized —instead of dozens of lawmakers pushing for a million here or a million there for bridge resurfacing, Roll Call says.

However, since the "bacon grease" isn't being spread broadly, it does little to lubricate an appropriations process that's increasingly creaky.

"The earmarks in the appropriations bills enacted since the initiation of the moratorium raise disturbing questions for the future, the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste says in the 25th annual edition of its "Pig Book." The organization identified 123 earmarks worth $5.1 billion insinuated somewhat secretively into the omnibus appropriations law enacted in December for the current fiscal year.

The numbers are nowhere close to the records set a decade ago: almost 14,000 earmarks directing $29 billion in outlays. Still, they mark the third straight year of steady increases, which the watchdogs label as a worrisome trend, and which plenty of lawmakers —almost always in private —continue to describe as insufficient.

Defenders of the practice assert, persuasively, that there's no evidence that funding for the line items increases federal deficits. The grand totals for annual discretionary spending get fixed by Congress every year, and after that, the only question for lawmakers is how to apportion those top line amounts.

Moreover, these members say, their constitutional power of the purse gives them broad latitude to pursue spending priorities different from the president regarding what government spending their states and districts not only need but also desire—and, even when that's not so, it should be the elected officials' call, not the bureaucrats'.

And, even if all those rationales don't work, there's an argument for paying a price for more functionality in Congress, Roll Call asserts.

Giving members something specific to vote for, instead of something to vote against, is a tried-and-true recipe that helped Senate Appropriations move all dozen fiscal 2017 bills to the floor--and at the agreed-upon $1.07 trillion spending cap, by the end of June, the earliest it's finished its work since 1988, and with a cumulative vote total of 345-15. The companion House committee is just two bills away.

Almost nobody is talking about actually bringing back earmarks. But Mikulski and all her fellow appropriators argue that they have won the right, and maybe even have an obligation, to make their best case that the congressional playbook needs additional tools, and that spending on a few pet projects should be both transparently and available. While earmarks may not be the answer, Congress clearly needs to consider new rules but it will be a real challenge to overcome the current suspicions that keep approval rates low, Washington Insider believes.

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