Skimming congressional funds 

Should federal agencies be allowed to skim untold millions of dollars off the top of special congressional appropriations without having any authority to do so, and without telling anyone how they spend the diverted millions?

Of course not. But they are.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska learned about this curious scheme when he got a phone call in 2005 from university officials in his state, telling him they'd been shortchanged by the Pentagon. Nelson had directed a million-dollar medical research grant to the university through a special appropriation he added to the Pentagon budget but the grant arrived $120,000 short of the million. The Pentagon had simply taken a 12 percent cut for itself, without so much as a please or a thank you.

Nelson began asking questions and found that such skimming is not uncommon. Neither is it consistent. Some agencies don't do it at all. Some that do have no set rules for percentages they take, with their skims ranging from 2 percent to as much as 25 percent of these dedicated grants. Sometimes, one branch of an agency siphons off maybe 4 percent while another branch pockets 10.

No agency has legislative authority to grab funds that Congress has appropriated to others, though at least one agency has claimed that its authority is "implied" in the budgetary process. That's a notion of executive supremacy that would leave the founders whopper-jawed.

These congressionally directed grants, known as earmarks, have their own sorry reputations, especially when they're made in secret, but skimming the earmarked funds with no authorization or accountability is an outright ripoff that defies the Constitution and mocks democratic transparency. Ironically, executive officials who have loudly assailed earmarks have quietly and illegally been profiting from them.

Sen. Nelson is pushing determinedly for answers. To learn more, connect with his Web site: bennelson.senate.gov.

Jim Hightower is the author of Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish can Go with the Flow. For more, visit jimhightower.com.


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