Earmarks return to Illinois politics, and so does the debate

Amid a conservative revolution and outrage about political corruption, Congress disciplined itself in 2011 by dropping the controversial practice of earmarks.

Now the hot-button allocations, often pet projects in lawmakers' home districts, appear to be back, with a rebrand, after House Democrats and Republicans both endorsed a return. The issue is still being discussed in the Senate.

Earmarks 2021 won't involve problematic ones such as extending Metra's BNSF Line to Oswego or the now defunct Prairie Parkway sparked by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, suburban lawmakers say.

"They're going to be very different from the old earmarks and the bridges to nowhere, there are a lot of guardrails put on them. There's going to be maximum transparency," Democratic U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg said.

Reforms include: requiring broad community support, excluding for-profit entities, channeling money to state/local governments or nonprofits, limiting earmark spending to 1% of discretionary spending under Congress' control equaling about $15 billion, or $7.5 billion each for the House and Senate. There's a cap of 10 requests per member. Congressmen must post projects online expeditiously and verify they or their families have no financial interest, according to the House Committee on Appropriations. The committee has dubbed earmarks "Community Project Funding."

There's also a push for what's doable. "I do think 'shovel-ready' will be one of the major criteria for assessing these projects," Krishnamoorthi said.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a Downers Grove Democrat, said "the idea is to recognize that there is value in the fact that we members have much more intimate knowledge of the needs of our district than the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for example."

Earmark projects won't be massive, but rather "a local zoo that's seeing an expansion and needs to expand the parking lot," or filling in gaps to connect walking/biking trails, Casten said.

Last week, 19 Republican senators released a letter saying "we will not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse." But nothing prevents senators from seeking earmarks now, experts said.

Hastert secured a $7.5 million earmark to bring Metra to his Oswego constituents in the early 2000s, but with no consensus on how to pay for it - nothing's been built. The powerful Republican also earmarked $207 million in 2005 for the now defunct Prairie Parkway, an expressway in Kane and Kendall counties, located near land Hastert bought through a trust and sold for a substantial profit.

In 2011, former congressman Joe Walsh successfully worked with Tea Party Republicans to put a moratorium on earmarks. It's one of Congress' "dirty little secrets," the Mundelein Republican said. "Both parties really want earmarks. Neither party was happy 10 years ago when we got rid of them. We wanted to make it more difficult to spend money."

He noted that earmarks are "one of the greatest powers leadership has to buy your vote." For example, "'Come on Joe, I need your vote on this spending bill, I'll throw in that little bridge.'"

But a diverse coalition of civic groups from the Metropolitan Planning Council to the Environmental Law & Policy Center to the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago contends earmarks paid for useful infrastructure that improved the region.

"In the past, the Illinois delegation used earmarked appropriations to jump-start projects that have made huge impacts, including the CREATE rail program, the Chicago Riverwalk, and rebuilding of the Chicago shoreline," the coalition wrote transportation agencies in March.

New earmarks could be used for O'Hare modernization or rail projects that separate freight and commuter lines to reduce train gridlock, for example, advocates said.

But "as earmarks come back at the federal level it will be important to impose some discipline on those in terms of data, analytics, and transparency so that those federal dollars, especially those coming back to Illinois, are going to be spent effectively and on good projects," said Kelly Welsh, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago's Civic Committee.

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One more thing

Chicago's United Airlines will expand flights in June, operating at 67% of its domestic schedule, the busiest the carrier's been since the COVID-19 pandemic began. New service will include direct flights from O'Hare International Airport to Kona, Hawaii, and to Alaska, reflecting expected growth in holiday travel this summer.

Gridlock alert

Route 83 commuters should brace for resurfacing between Higgins and Golf roads in Elk Grove Village and Mount Prospect with intermittent lane closures starting May 3. Work should wrap up in August.

Proponents of restoring earmarks say the money will go to pragmatic projects with clear goals, such as the Englewood Flyover that helped reduce congestion on Metra and freight train tracks. Daily Herald File Photo
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