Congress Should Regain ‘Power of the Purse’ for In-State Projects

The federal government’s dismissal of two worthy West Virginia higher education grant applications last month opens the door for serious questioning of the competitive funding process.

West Virginia University’s renewal application for its successful McNair Scholars program was denied because school officials rounded up the funding request by $2. West Virginia State University lost out on renewal due to a $104 technicality on its Upward Bound proposal. That program boosts college participation by disadvantaged students who need a helping hand to achieve a bachelor’s degree. Both the McNair and Upward Bound programs fall under the U.S. Department of Education.

Both situations defy common sense. And the “bureaucratic nitpicking” shown in these two cases is not confined to the Education Department or to West Virginia.

Rules and policies in fiscal matters are important to follow, but sensible flexibility by the federal government needs to be a reasonable option.

Who is better to decide how our precious tax dollars are allocated — members of Congress who live and interact with people and projects at home, or federal employees who administer reams of rules and regulations when poring through 100-page applications?

I say our elected representatives and their staff should be more involved in deciding where projects are funded, and the bureaucrats should have the budget and programmatic oversight to make sure federal resources are maximized. Until 2010, the constitutionally-created annual appropriations process was how this occurred.

Seven years ago, congressional rules were adopted that ended congressionally directed, or earmarked, projects in the annual federal appropriations process. As the process came to a close, Congress was in midstream of finalizing Fiscal Year 2011 government-wide funding. According to the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, West Virginia’s delegation requested and was in line to receive $860 million.

Among the projects submitted by Mountain State organizations, money was set aside for flood control in the southern coalfields, an annex to the Internal Revenue Service in Martinsburg, a veterans nursing home in Beckley and mine rescue team training.

Since that dark day and the end of earmarks, the federal government’s effectiveness and functionality have been in a steady decline.

With more skin in the game in their districts and states, congressional representatives would increase their focus on job creation and retention, STEM education, economic development, infrastructure, law enforcement and security, disease prevention, chronic health care, food quality and research — the items that make our cities, states and nation run more smoothly and improve our quality of life.

I had the good fortune to land a coveted job in the West Virginia congressional delegation and to spend nearly a decade learning about the intricacies of the federal budget and helping the state of West Virginia, municipalities, colleges, nonprofits, businesses and researchers bring home the bacon. When competitive grants, loans or contracts would fund and meet a local or regional need, we used every ounce of our power toward that goal. But when the competitive process let us down and common sense went by the wayside, we were able to turn to the federal appropriations process as a means of leveling the playing field.

The appropriations process was utilized wisely by our state’s delegation when the federal government balked or said no. Sometimes projects that did not fit existing competitive programs were made possible. The planetarium at the Clay Center in Charleston, Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at WVU, FBI divisions at Bridgeport, Bureau of Public Debt at Parkersburg and Stonewall Jackson Lake and Dam are just a few of those impactful projects.

Congressionally directed projects in the 12 spending bills that make up our federal budget can be reviewed online, providing full transparency and accountability. Since the funding is already being made available for agencies and programs, earmarks as a carve-out would not increase the deficit. Legislative productivity would improve. Most importantly, worthy projects would not be denied on technicalities, and citizens would benefit from projects our legislators helped them conceive and make possible. Without earmarks, we normally see Congress pass an omnibus appropriations bill at the last minute. The annual threats to shut down the entire federal government are getting old.

Let’s return the “power of the purse” to Congress and delegate federal grant decision-making to the leaders we send to Washington, D.C. Bureaucrats should do all they can to be cooperative and administer programs designed to boost quality of life and full employment. Our elected officials would have a higher purpose representing us in Washington, D.C.