After a 10-year ban, Congressional earmarks are back on the table, and it didn’t take long for legislators to seize the moment and bring home some “pork” to fund projects in their districts. The Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill currently making its way through Congress has some $5.7 billion in earmarks for 1,473 projects across the country.
Congress banned earmarks in 2011, following years of frustration from voters and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer told colleagues that he was working with Republicans on a plan to bring back earmarks in a bipartisan way. House Republicans voted 102-84 in March to join Democrats on restoring pork-barrel projects in spending bills.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy framed the issue as taking back the “power of the purse” from the Executive Branch and putting it back into the hands of Congress, where the Founding Fathers originally intended it to be.
“I think members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden,” McCarthy told the Associated Press.
John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings, wrote a piece recently arguing that Americans should be glad earmarks are back because it means money will be allocated to projects that might be otherwise overlooked.
“They serve a real purpose, allowing legislators—who well understand the needs of their districts/states—to target funds for important projects that can solve policy problems and create jobs,” Hudak wrote. “While abuses happen, the vast majority of earmarks were meant to respond to constituents’ concerns and needs.”
Not everyone is as supportive of bringing back earmarks. Brian M. Reidl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, recently argued that the costs associated with doing the proper research on funding applicants would far outweigh the benefits of providing the assistance in the first place, looking to the pre-2011 era as a proof of concept.
“During the height of earmarks, some lawmakers were forced to devote upwards to 10,000 staff-hours annually to earmark reviews. Staff will spend half its time allocating one percent of federal spending,” Reidl wrote. “That leaves little time to do your real job of assisting the rest of your constituents, or crafting legislation to enhance national security, fix health care, and improve veterans’ programs.”
Reidl also noted that just because Congress has the power to control spending does not mean that the legislative branch should micromanage it, in the same way that it has war powers but does not dictate military policy. He argues that Congress should instead focus on providing oversight and regulation to federal agencies tasked with administering funds to states and localities.
“Federal agencies have the resources, field expertise, and audit capabilities to allocate federal grants. And you in Congress have the power to legislate the agencies’ criteria to better reflect your priorities,” Reidl wrote. “Alternatively, you could empower state and local governments to allocate this local spending.”
Hudak agrees on this point, noting that Congress should not be afraid to reform the earmark process if it’s not working or slides back into the corrupt territory that so many Americans took issue with in the first place.
“Simply putting it into place and enacting safeguards is not sufficient. Congress should continuously reexamine whether earmarking is making a difference in districts/states, whether the safeguards are preventing corruption and malfeasance, and whether systematic biases exist in the system,” Hudak wrote. “If problems arise, Congress should consider further reforms to strengthen the system, rather than take a knee jerk response of banning it.”
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