Earmarks Make a Comeback
In late February, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives announced they would be resurrecting the practice of earmarking.
Senate leaders have not yet said if they will go along, and Republicans are hemming and hawing, but newly-appointed House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is moving full steam ahead. She has insisted, “Community Project Funding will allow Members [of Congress] to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.”
“Community Project Funding” is the new Washington euphemism for earmarks.
For those who have forgotten the drama of a decade ago (and we’ll go over that in a second), earmarks, broadly defined according to Slate, are “any element of a spending bill that allocates money for a very specific thing—a given project, say, or location, or institution.” The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has offered a more legalistic definition. CRS says earmarks are “any congressionally directed spending, tax benefit, or tariff benefit” that goes to “a specific entity or state, locality, or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process.”
Slate offered this line item as one example of an earmark: a $500,000 allocation for the Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C. One of the most infamous earmarks was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $223 million boondoggle secured by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). That money would have gone to construct a bridge to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island—a village that has a population of only a few hundred. (The cost for the bridge would have been around $1 million per Gravina Island resident.)
Were these questionable uses of taxpayer money?
Perhaps, and concerns about earmarking eventually led to Republican leaders imposing a ban on them a decade ago, in the 112th Congress. At that point, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a staunch opponent of earmarks, lawmakers were allocating about $29 billion a year to earmarks, approximately one percent of total federal discretionary spending. In fairness, this wasn’t additional government spending, but rather the direct allocation of already-approved government funds to specific projects.
As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, however, the earmark moratorium “does not exist in House or Senate chamber rules … Instead, the moratorium has been established by party rules and committee protocols and is enforced by chamber and committee leadership through their agenda-setting power.”
In other words: the party in control of a chamber can resurrect the practice of earmarking any time it wants to.
But if earmarking was so unpopular, why would House and Senate leaders risk the political fallout of bringing them back? Principally because they leadership more control over their caucuses. Earmarks supply leadership with a carrot to entice rank and file lawmakers to support legislation, especially large bills that are controversial.
In a USA Today column, Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker said these carrots are much more effective than any sticks leaders are able to wield. “Party leaders in Congress would be the most obvious beneficiaries of the restoration of earmarks, because they can be dispensed as incentives to members to fall into line behind them,” Baker said, “There are ways, of course, to induce recalcitrant members to support leadership, but they are blunt instruments such as stripping such members of their committee assignments.”
Baker also argued earmarks could help bring the two parties together. “There is also reason to believe that earmarks might promote more bipartisanship,” Baker said. “In the Senate where amendments by members of the minority are often blocked, bipartisan earmarking would enable senators of the minority party to direct money to projects in their states.”
Of course, if lawmakers are enticed to vote for legislation because of small perks for their states or districts, that also would be reflected in a higher, and more bipartisan, vote count for legislation. That’s why Business Insider noted earmarks used to be a “tool for getting difficult legislation passed through Congress.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a staunch earmark opponent, framed that argument in a more negative light, however. “[Earmarks are] the grease that moves the corrupting gears of Washington,” Lee told a Utah television station recently. “People say this is just a small percentage of overall spending. But that’s like saying the engine of a mile-long locomotive is one small piece, but it’s moving the whole train.”
Former President Donald Trump recognized this “grease” as a benefit, however. Without earmarks at his party’s disposal, in 2018 he lamented, “[T]here was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”
Current commander in chief Joe Biden also reportedly was a fan of earmarks when he was in the Senate. According to Axios, President Biden “was very effective in using earmarks while in the Senate, and successfully used them to get funding for Dover Air Force Base and other projects in Delaware.” Current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also was a prolific ear-marker back when the GOP allowed them.
According to John Hudak, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management, earmarking helps members of Congress fulfill their constitutional duties. (Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to tax and spend.)
Hudak wrote, “the removal of congressional earmarking does not make earmarking go away. It simply transfers that power and that practice from the legislative branch to the executive branch. Presidents—and their appointees—engage in pork-barrel politicking (earmarking) in the same way Congress does. Reforming the process in Congress by curtailing the practice of earmarking simply shifts that power more explicitly to a president and a cadre of unelected bureaucrats in government.”
Hudak concluded, “Eliminating earmarking is a serious abdication of power by Congress which empowers a branch of government beyond what the Founders intended.” He also argued, “Many Americans are likely to prefer that their own House member or senator provide input over what a district or state needs than rely on unelected bureaucrats or political appointees to make such choices.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has agreed with that last statement. In congressional testimony in 2019, Rep. Hoyer said simply, “Members of Congress individually know their districts better than anyone at federal agencies and better than the Appropriations Committee as a whole.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) seems to be on Hudak’s and Rep. Hoyer’s side as well. She has said earmarks would “help rectify what has been an enormous shift in power from Congress to the executive branch over the past ten years.”
Hudak noted that, when Democrats were in control of Congress back in 2006 and 2007, they had begun to institute some earmark reforms that improved the process by making it more transparent and that, today, could ensure funding goes to worthwhile projects and entities.
Citizens Against Government Waste, the organization that opposes earmarks, does not agree. In a column penned with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the organization said no amount of transparency would make the earmarking process fair or equitable. Sen. Ernst and the group noted, “When members of Congress were required to add their names to the earmarks they received, taxpayers were able to see that the 81 members of the House and Senate appropriations committees received 51 percent of the money and 61 percent of the earmarks.”
Earmark opponents also offer another argument: at a time when the federal deficit is growing rapidly because of the economic and budget impact of the coronavirus pandemic, earmarks would balloon the national debt.
Ross Baker, the Rutgers political scientist, disagreed in his USA Today column. He said earmarks “involve no new appropriations.” Instead, “they tap existing pots of money and merely redirect them to projects deemed worthy by members of Congress rather than distributed by formulas over which members have no control.”
Republicans might be coming around to Baker’s arguments. Late last night, Reuters reported GOP leaders are divided and in intense talks about what to do about Democrats’ earmark proposal. The wire service said it expects Republicans to announce a decision on the matter this week. Axios said Senate leaders, including Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), could announce a plan this week as well.
Stay tuned. Even in the current highly-partisan environment, there may be one thing both parties can agree on, after all.