Congressional earmarks are making a comeback — here’s why

  • After an eight-year moratorium under a GOP-controlled House, lawmakers are planning to reintroduce earmarks in the next Congress.
  • In defense of the practice, lawmakers are appealing to Congress’s constitutional authority as well as the needs of their states and districts; they promise safeguards to avoid abuse and corruption.
  • The assurance of safeguards for earmarks has not persuaded skeptics, who still worry about their track record during the last two decades before they were banned.

A Brief History of Earmarks

After an eight year moratorium imposed after the 2010 midterm election swept the GOP into power in Congress, earmarks are back on the table and appear likely to return to Congress as Democrats reclaim control of the House in 2019.

Earmarking, in short, is a practice by which lawmakers hand pick recipients of government grants within a larger funding bill. The term has acquired negative connotations in recent years, capturing Americans’ ire over the bloated spending and perverse incentives that too-often characterize Washington, but earmarks are not new to U.S. politics. In fact, the Senate Historical Office traces the first earmark all the way back to the Lighthouse Act of 1789, when a bill to fund the construction of lighthouses along the Atlantic coast included funds for the construction of a pier in Philadelphia, added at the behest of the congressional delegation from Pennsylvania.

Over the following two centuries, earmarks continued to appear in spending bills, but only sparingly, such as an 1817 public works project that was described in Senate debates as “magnificent schemes” and spending on “objects worse than useless.” During the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, usage of earmarks ballooned rapidly, growing to almost 14,000 items in 2005 and hitting an all-time high of $29 billion in 2006, according to the budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

As the use of earmarks grew, concerns over government spending and waste began to take center stage, and a 2006 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found banning earmarks to be voters’ top priority for Congress. The issue reached a tipping point in the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that cost taxpayers $320 million and was a featured talking point in the late Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010, House Democrats under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to reform the system, banning earmarks benefitting for-profit organizations. This cut earmarks by about 10 percent.

As the party seeking to define itself by fiscal responsibility, however, Congressional Republicans were not to be outdone, and then-Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, promised to do away with earmarks entirely if the GOP gained control of the House. A sweeping victory for Republicans in the 2010 midterms, coupled with President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech saying that he would veto any bills with earmarks to avoid “larding up legislation with pet projects,” meant that earmarks were effectively dead. They would remain so under the Speakership of Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan when Boehner retired in 2015.

Greasing the Legislative Skids

There is no law in Congress banning earmarks, it was simply a procedural practice implemented by Boehner that the incoming House leadership can green light next term when appropriations bills are drafted. Fresh off a significant midterm victory, House Democrat leaders say they are poised to do just that.

With the chronic gridlock in Congress and an unpredictable president, momentum has been building in recent years for a return of earmarks. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue that the present earmarks ban leaves too much directed spending up to the president. This not only strips Congress of its constitutional power of the purse, the argument goes, but also means that the needs of individual congressional districts are more poorly attended to by federal resources, since the lawmakers tasked with representing those districts don’t have as much personal say in spending bills.

“To say that a member of Congress is unable to help his or her own district I think is incorrect,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is poised to become the new House majority leader, told reporters earlier this month. “We are co-equal branches — that is our authority under the Constitution. We don’t have to go hat in hand to the president and say, please, will you spend money on this, that, or the other?”

“I know first hand when you have to depend on some department up here in Washington, they just don’t know your district. Every district is different. There’s nobody who knows it like the member,” Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who is running to be the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told The Hill in November shortly after the midterm election.

“If they are done fairly and transparently and they are done in daylight, earmarks can be a very positive thing,” he said.

The potential for abuse and favoritism (a 2008 study, for instance, found a clear correlation between House Armed Services Committee earmarks and campaign contributions from companies that received funding) has led lawmakers to also stress the need for transparency and integrity. They point to earmark reforms that took place in 2006 requiring lawmakers to affirm that they had no financial interest in proposed earmarks and stipulating that earmarks in legislation to be posted online.

“The problem with earmarks is they were abused,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who has served in Congress since 1983, told the Washington Examiner. “I think they need to essentially eliminate earmarks for private entities and have them only public. There needs to be a really good look at it.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., similarly cautioned earlier this year that bringing back earmarks “has to be done in the right way,” in order to “make sure we don’t have any problems with it as there has been in the past.”

“I wouldn’t want to go back to earmarks that no one would claim (credit for), that benefited special interests,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., told PBS in March. She supports a system where earmarks are “not secret. They’re posted on the internet. The sponsor is made clear. They are for a public purpose. They go to a public entity.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” she added.

The case against earmarks

With President Trump suggesting earlier this year that Congress should consider reinstating earmarks to make legislation easier to pass, GOP opposition to the practice is likely to be muted in the new Congress. This is not to say, however, that reinstating earmarks will come without political blowback. Many advocacy groups in nonpartisan and conservative circles believe the earmark ban should be upheld, lest Congress slide into a pattern of even more egregious spending and self-serving power grabs.

Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating waste and inefficiency in government, argues that earmark funds were not evenly allocated under the old system. CAGW found that during the last legislative session before Congress banned earmarks in 2011, members of the House and Senate appropriations committees received 61 percent of all earmarked money despite only making up about 15 percent of all members of Congress.

“It has nothing to do with merit,” Schatz told PBS in March. “It has everything to do with political power.”

Politicians paying lip service to transparency safeguards for earmarks has not persuaded opponents like Schatz, who still worry about the practice’s track record during the last two decades before they were banned.

“Earmarks do not directly increase spending and deficits, but they put pressure on lawmakers to expand programs to accommodate all the pork,” wrote Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, in an op-ed last month for The Washington Examiner. “More importantly, earmarks have proven to be magnets for corruption and fraud by allowing lawmakers to distribute large government grants to friends and donors.”

In a joint letter last month, Taxpayers for Common Sense and National Taxpayers Union, two nonpartisan organizations that advocate for the interests of taxpayers, urged Congress to uphold the earmarks moratorium.

“Ending the moratorium, and the thousands of earmarks that would surely launch, will inevitably lead to accusations of pay-to-play, and would represent an affront to voters who’ve expressed a desire to make government work for taxpayers rather than special interests,” the letter said. “In reality, appropriations bills offer many opportunities for Congress to direct agencies on how to spend money by setting clear priorities, identifying funding eligibility standards, or increasing or decreasing funding to existing programs.”

Image Credit: “2017 AFGE Legislative Conference – Monday” by AFGE is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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