DC Council Earmarks

DC Council Earmarks

DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray has done a brave and sensible thing by eliminating councilmember earmarks from the FY2010 District of Columbia budget. But what DC Government really needs is earmark abolition.

Earmarks are no-bid contracts in the nonprofit sector, and they undercut the city’s competitive grant programs and bidding practices. Earmarks reward the politically-connected, not the best-qualified. Councilmembers and staff do not have the expertise or time to assess the merits of each earmarked grant or knowledge of competing alternatives. The Barry earmarks are exhibit A.

But look at the arts and cultural grants the Council awarded for FY 2010 before they were erased from the budget. The $31 million in Council arts earmarks totaled nearly 4 times the entire FY 2010 budget of the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities. Why bother filling out a DCCAH grant application and putting it through competitive peer-panel review and Commission approval for a possible 4 or 5 -figure grant when your councilmember can get you more money without any paperwork?

Council earmarks go to the city’s biggest cultural organizations, which serve a greater percentage of tourists and suburban audiences than DC residents. The Federal government knowns this, and established the National Capital Art and Cultural Affairs Program (NCACA) to fund programs for this non-DC audience (this year’s NCACA allocation: $9.5 million). The District’s arts agency knows this, and places limits on DC grants to NCACA recipients. The DC Council must not know about NCACA,  since it routinely gives large earmarks to organizations (Kennedy Center, National Building Museum, Washington National Opera) that receive these generous automatic federal payments.

Council arts earmarks were $31 million; the NCACA organizations automatically got $9.5 million in federal cash, a difference of $21.5. If there is that much need for arts grants to non-NCACA cultural organizations,the city should double the $8 million DCCAH budget and give the agency a few more grants officers to run a larger competitive grants programs effectively.

Technically, earmarks are “One-Time,” Non-Recurring Grants,” but some organizations seem to get them every year. While the council has only given earmarks in the last eight years, a general pattern of abuse of the English language, Council rules, and the DC budget seems clear.

 Councilmember Marion Barry funneled $1 million dollars in DC funds to six dubious nonprofits controlled by members of his staff in the past year alone. Why did he request the earmarks?

… Barry said the earmarks stemmed from a request that D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, made last year to secure a $10 million grant for Ford’s Theatre.

Barry said he was initially opposed to Evans’s request but, in an effort to get more funding for Ward 8, began bartering with Evans and other council members who needed his vote.

“Jack would help us and other members of the council identify certain parts of the budget for others,” Barry recalled. “That is how it works down there. I resent the notion that hanky-panky is going on.”

… Barry said he ended up with about $8 million in city funds that he decided to distribute to nearly 40 organizations, many of them in Ward 8. — “It’s ‘What Politicians Do,'” Tim Craig and Del Quentin Wilber, Washington Post.

 We warned you about that Ford’s Theatre earmark.

The Barry earmarks need further scrutiny, but any earmarks at all clearly escalate into wasteful “horsetrading.” The only remedy is ending the pernicious and wasteful earmark practice in the arts and all areas.


Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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One Response to “DC Council Earmarks”

  1. Report Indicts DC Council Earmarks « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] Past NotionsCapital posts about this issue here and here. […]

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