The Problem with Earmarks
If you've been unconvinced by my continuous prattling on about the issues with earmarks, I hope that a Charles Babcock article in today's Washington Post will help. Called "The Project that Wouldn't Die," Babcock's piece examines funding for "Project M" - an earmark-funded contract given to Vibration & Sound Solutions Limited (VSSL) of Alexandria, VA. Since 1997, the company has marketed its product successively as "a way to keep submarine machinery quieter", "a way to keep Navy SEALs safer in their boats", and now "as a possible way to protect Marines from roadside bombs."
Congressional funding for this program, long sustained by Virginia congressmen, is drying up - and since the company apparently has no other business, it's closing. Babcock: "Analysts and others who follow congressional earmarking closely say the company's experience exemplifies one of the pitfalls of the process: Once begun, promising but speculative programs like Project M are hard to kill, sustained by members of Congress who want to keep jobs in their districts, military officials who want to keep their options open and businesspeople who want to keep their companies afloat."
The Pentagon wasn't ever particularly interested in VSSL's technology. The man in charge of overseeing the project for DoD is quoted as saying that the company "seemed to me a solution looking for a problem the Navy might have. But it kept failing to solve any problems the Navy had. It looked at first as if it might have some merit. But we found out quickly it didn't really solve the problems. And the company wasn't very responsive and wasn't very robust."
Babcock's report adds that even after the Pentagon rejected VSSL's plan in 2001, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) kept pushing funding for the company (and he has also received more than $17,000 in campaign contributions from VSSL's president and his wife).
Some stats: "The number of earmarks in the annual defense spending bill increased from 587 worth $4.2 billion in fiscal 1994 to 2,506 worth $9 billion in fiscal 2005, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study. There were 231 'plus-ups' - the Navy's term for the money Congress adds for its members' pet projects - totaling nearly $600 million just in the Office of Naval Research budget in fiscal 2005, about a quarter of the total."
This is a problem. And until members of Congress take serious steps to end their addiction to earmaking, it's not a problem that's going away.