Should Religious Groups Use Earmarks for Pet Projects?

Should religious groups lobby for federal grants
for pet projects?

Earmarks are
individual
federal
grants that
bypass the
normal
appropriations
and competitive-
bidding
procedures.–
The New York
Times

Should religious groups lobby for federal grants for pet projects using earmarks? The question is raised in a front page article in the Sunday New York Times.

The article points out that many religious groups maintain offices in Washington, D.C. to influence public policy based on their moral precepts. But they have not bought the services of lobbyists for earmarks, which are written as riders on other legislation and don’t reflect public policy issues. They are grants for specific projects like roads, bridges or buildings. Because they are not examined by committees and the full legislature, they are a quiet way to secure funds or concessions.

My colleague, James Winkler, head of the Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, says earmarks could present serious moral conflicts. He says an earmark for an individual project attached to a bill that would provide funding for war would put the church in an untenable position.

I think Jim is correct. Moreover, I think the whole process of earmarks, which have come under criticism recently, can be easily abused. The famous bridge to nowhere is the most recent example. The use of earmarks puts religious groups in league with other special interests seeking to benefit themselves rather than seeking the public good.

Public policy advocacy by boards such as Winkler’s Church and Society focuses on wider social benefits, usually for programs that serve disadvantaged groups or protect the rights of minorities, for example. These positions are based on moral precepts, not upon securing specific benefit through a well-connected lobbyist. One example cited in the article is re-routing a road to a religious college, perhaps a useful project, but one which seems little different than a bridge in a congressional district secured as pork. And even conceding social benefit, the lack of transparency in the process and the fact the funds go to a specific entity makes them very problematic, in my opinion. I agree with James Winkler that the use of earmarks significantly changes the public witness of religious communities and could compromise their ability to be credible public advocates. That is too high a price to pay.

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