Decades later, millions in 'orphan' earmarks remain unspent

Just because Congress has banned new earmarks since 2010 doesn't mean that the old earmarks went away.

In fact, some of those old congressional pet projects remain on the books despite the fact that the projects they support are long dead. And the earmark ban has had an unintended consequence: Congress can no longer find new homes for those unspent earmarks by simply writing new earmarks into spending bills.

The result is an "orphan" earmark, where money is trapped in a project that will likely never be built. According to the latest accounting by the Federal Highway Administration, there are $125.7 million in earmarks that that are more than 10 years old and remain more than 90% unspent. Some of them date back to 1989.

Why? As USA TODAY first reported in 2011, thousands of earmarks are never spent because of a drafting error by Congress (getting the name of the highway wrong, for example), or because the earmark didn't provide enough money to finish the project. Former Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., once bungled a $1 million earmark in 2005 by inserting it in a bill after work had already begun and other funds were used.

In 2012, President Obama tried to free up $473 million from 671 old unspent earmarks by moving the money into projects that could still be built. But he was only able to do that for earmarks where Congress had already given him the authority to move the money.

Wednesday, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Chaire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a bipartisan bill attempting to rein in remaining "idle" earmarks by adding a use-it-or-lose-it rule for all transportation earmarks. Under the Orphan Earmarks Act, unspent earmarks would automatically go back to the federal treasury if not used within 10 years — with a one year extension if the Secretary of Transportation thinks the money could be spent.

The bill would recoup $125.7 million in unused earmarks this year, but could have an even bigger effect next year. That's when more than 7,000 earmarks approved by Congress in a 2005 spending bill would expire under the Coburn/McCaskill proposal.


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