DOE earmarks

Every year you go to work, get paid, do your taxes and send in the money you owe to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). That money is put into a pot (a very big pot), along with every other American taxes to run our government and fund our national defense. The money is supposed to be by all the people, for all the people.

In 2006, the Department of Energy (DOE) received $24.3 billion to run its organization. The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) sector of the budget was $1,173,843 billion.

The programs under the EERE budget umbrella include hydrogen technology, biomass, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal, hydropower, vehicle technologies, building technologies, industrial technologies, federal energy management, facilities & infrastructure, weatherization, and program support.

All of these programs are vying for part of the $1.1 billion. The DOE has strict guidelines set up for companies that want to be part of Research and Development (R&D) projects, including open solicitation of bids and accounting for monies spent.

It all works except one thing; Congress. Let me step back: Congressmen are able to fund their own projects in their own state. Taxpayers, in most states, pay state taxes and that money is budgeted inside that state for whatever that state deems necessary for them. If it is of national importance then Congressmen can plead their case for national funding.

But Congress has found a way around asking the people in their own state for more money, they take it out of the national budget. In polite conversation, i.e. government hallways, and government budgets you will hear and see this referred to as “Congressionally directed activities”, but outside they are known as earmarks. Earmarks don’t have to be scrutinized by either the Senate or House. Earmarks override the spending budget decided by Congress as a whole.

The total budget for EERE in 2006 was $1.1 billion, of that 14 percent was redirected by Congressmen. Those redirects, known as earmarks, are not vetted and there is no responsibility by anyone to make sure that the money is spent where it says it is going. Fourteen percent was the average, though, with some projects getting as much as 50 percent of their budget taken away by projects Congressmen to want to be done in their own state.

The Biomass section of the EERE was allocated $90 million for 2006. Of that 50 percent was allocated to earmarks for anything from $250,000 for Clarkson Univ. Dairy Waste Public/Private Partnership (NY) to $11 million to Mississippi State University for Sustainable Energy Center. It just seems like all a Congressman did was put “biomass” in the title of the earmark and they were given carte blanche to take as much money as they wanted.

No open solicitation of bid or responsibility to account for the way the money was spent. Wind energy followed with 33 percent of its budget being redirected to earmarks and hydrogen R&D followed with 27 percent of its budget being redirected.

In a press release in February 2006, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stated that FY2006 earmarks for EERE programs had left it with a $28 million gap in it’s operating funds, forcing NREL to cut 32 staff positions in hydrogen, biomass, and basic research programs.

What does this mean to the average citizen? Let’s say that you make $100,000 a year, you own a home and you pay $10,000 of that salary to federal taxes and $3,000 to state. Are we paying more in taxes than needed to fund our national budget? I don’t know a single middle-income household that wouldn’t like to see a tax cut on their federal taxes. But most people are willing to pay taxes for the good of the country. Most taxpayers understand the need to be competitive. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) examined earmarks for DOE energy research and development (R&D) programs and found that, “… earmarks eat up whatever increases there are for most energy programs and cut deeply into core R&D programs. Energy R&D earmarks total $266 million in 2006, more than double the previous record from last year, and makeup one out of every five R&D dollars. As a result, there will be enormous cuts to competitively awarded R&D grants in those areas.”

According to thisnation.com,”In November of 2004, 401 of the 435 sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought reelection. Of those 401, all but five were reelected. In other words, incumbents seeking reelection to the House had a better than 99\% success rate. In the U.S. Senate, only one incumbent seeking reelection was defeated. Twenty-five of twenty-six (96%) were reelected.”

In a Congressional Research Service white paper about DOE earmarks, there is a reference to a “dear colleague letter” from Senators Coburn and McCain on Earmarks, that seeks to change the process by saying, “We believe the process of earmarking undermines the confidence of the American public in Congress because the practice is not open, fair, or competitive and tends to reward the politically well-connected.”

When you are voting for your Congressman this year, find out if they are earmarking your tax dollars and then make your decision.