Background: In January, the House Rules Committee will hold a hearing on “congressionally directed spending,” which is an inside Washington euphemism for a congressional earmark. Earmarks have been prohibited since 2011, when Republicans seized control of the House after the tea party wave.
What is an earmark?
Generally, an earmark is a special provision inserted into legislation that directs funds to a specific recipient, often times circumventing formula, merit-based or competitive funds allocation processes. Current House rules (Rule XXI, clause 9) explicitly defines a congressional earmark as follows:
[A] provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process.
In other words, instead of simply setting funding levels for an existing or new federal program, earmarks are explicitly directed to a specific recipient.
Why are earmarks bad?
Earmarks are bad for several reasons. First, congressional leadership can use the promise of earmarks to pass fiscally irresponsible and liberal policy that favors the politically and financially well-connected. In other words, earmarks grease the skids by — for all intents and purposes — buying the votes of individual lawmakers who might not otherwise vote in favor of a specific bill. The $30 billion in taxpayer bailouts for the disastrous 2005 highway bill contained 6,300 earmarks, for example. In another now-forgotten example, to win Senator Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) vote in 2009, Obamacare included the “Louisiana Purchase” – a deal that sent $4.3 billion in additional Medicaid funds to her state.
Second, earmarks waste millions of taxpayer dollars. In fiscal year 2010, Congress passed 9,129 earmarks to the tune of $16.5 billion. By circumventing merit-based or competitive funds allocation processes, earmarks are more likely to go towards politically favored pet projects, resulting in greater government waste. Perhaps the most infamous example was the “Bridge to Nowhere” connecting Ketchikan, Alaska with Gravina Island, funding for which was ultimately cancelled in 2015. Two years after the earmark ban was enacted, the number of earmarks dropped to 152 and costed only $3.3 billion as Congress continued the process of weeding out earmark-like provisions.
Finally, earmarks also serve as a source of corruption. As The Heritage Foundation noted in 2006, “a growing body of evidence suggests that illegal and questionable lobbying practices are not uncommon and that incidents such as those involving Mr. [Jack] Abramoff have likely been repeated in similar transactions between other lobbyists and Members.” The Abramoff scandal resulted in 21 people — including one congressman and two White House officials — to either plead guilty or to be found guilty of corruption.
When did congressional Republicans ban the use of earmarks?
Former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) successfully led the effort to ban earmarks after the tea party wave of 2010 that ushered in anti-crony and fiscally responsible Republican members. The ban on earmarks has already saved taxpayers millions of dollars, created a more transparent appropriations process, and has made it harder for congressional leadership to ram through big-government legislation. Right after the election of Donald Trump, some congressional Republicans — led by Reps. John Culberson of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Tom Rooney of Florida, and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania — attempted to lift the six-year ban on earmarks.
Current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) reportedly shut down the effort, telling Republican lawmakers that “We just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.” Now, in a shocking turn of events, President Trump recently suggested that Congress should consider bringing back earmarks to help pass a massive infrastructure package later this year. The House Rules Committee will hold a hearing in January.
Claim and Response:
Aren’t earmarks irrelevant or at least a small share of the spending problem?
No. First, earmarks grease the skids by — for all intents and purposes — buying the votes of individual lawmakers who would not otherwise vote in favor of a specific bill. Those bills tend to be large, expensive and unpopular. Second, the American people will never give politicians the chance to reform large mandatory and entitlement programs that will bankrupt the country if they cannot demonstrate some semblance of fiscal responsibility. And regardless of the percentage, the cost of all earmarks in spending bills is real money.
Doesn’t the ban on earmarks hand spending control over to the executive branch and undermine Congress’ power of the purse?
There is no question the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, but that does not mean every special project is a constitutionally appropriate use of federal taxpayers’ money. That is even truer when spending should be reduced. Moreover, Congress sets the budget, authorizes spending and appropriates funds to federal agencies and to new programs without the use of earmarks. Congress can even defund specific federal programs or agencies if they so desire. If members of Congress have an issue with how the current system appropriates funds, the answer is to change the formula, not bring back earmarks.
Without earmarks, aren’t spending decisions left to “unelected bureaucrats?”
The legislative branch routinely delegates significant authority to unelected bureaucrats at the programmatic level. For example, the legislative text of Obamacare was roughly 2,700 pages long, whereas the regulatory implementation of Obamacare required well over 20,000 pages. Conservatives fully support taking away power from unelected bureaucrats, but that should come in the form of rigorous oversight and well-drafted legislation. The time-consuming focus on earmarking, by personal offices as well as committees, is a distraction that actually makes the effort to strengthen transparency and accountability in lawmaking even harder.
Don’t constituents want federal funding to benefit their district or state over another?
No. According to a 2016 Economist Group/YouGov poll, 63 percent of Americans approve of the ban on earmarks while only 12 percent disapprove. But even if this were true, it does not give Congress an excuse to do the wrong thing and betray the public’s trust in a “Drain the Swamp” administration.
Wouldn’t robust transparency measures address the concerns about corruption and overspending?
No. “The victory against secret earmarks will not directly affect Congress’s spending behavior,” wrote former House Appropriations cardinal Rep. Ernest Istook in 2007. Looking back at previous transparency efforts, Istook made clear that “All that Republicans won is the chance to save billions by allowing public scrutiny of earmarks. So far, not a penny has actually been saved, but now any Member can challenge any earmark on the House floor-and force colleagues to vote for or against each project.”
If Republicans do not reform the earmark process now, won’t Democrats bring them back without reforms if they return to power next year?
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama used his annual State of the Union address to issue a veto threat against all bills that contained earmarks. Thus far, congressional Democrats have remained relatively quiet as Republicans flirt with the idea of a return to earmarks. But as Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) wrote: “If Republicans bring back earmarks, you can bet that Democrats plant the blame of every subsequent earmark on Republicans. It’s only a matter of time before there is another politically catastrophic “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Even CNN noted: “Democrats are likely to use the effort to revive earmarks as a midterm campaign issue, pointing out that a party that pledged to ‘drain the swamp’ is now preparing to re-institute a practice that prompted a major public backlash a decade ago.”
Solution: Uphold the Current Earmark Ban
One of the main tenets of conservatism is a limited federal government that spends no more than it takes in. Republicans consistently campaign on fiscal responsibility, lower spending, balanced budgets, and draining the swamp. They must live up to their campaign promises and refurbish the Republican brand as anti-cronyism and fiscally responsible. Therefore, the expectation is that Republican members will abide by the ban on earmarks. Failure to do so runs contrary to the will of the Conference and the American people.