The Earmark Strikes Back!

Since 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have observed a ban on earmarks. According to the Congressional Research Service, an earmark “includes any congressionally directed spending, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit.” Though Democrats initially resisted efforts to get rid of earmarks, which were key tools to bring in money into congressional districts, they eventually agreed.

Recently, though, the idea of reintroducing earmarks is making a comeback. With Democrats back in control of the House in a divided Congress, they are seeking to impose their Article I powers of the purse and to use the full extent of their congressional authority to direct spending in the way they please. Regarding this issue, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Nita Lowey stated, “Congressionally-directed spending is very important to carrying out Congress’ constitutional responsibilities and constituent service duties...The Appropriations Committee has a proud tradition of congressionally directed spending, and I hope that we can reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement to restore this important practice [of earmarking].” President Donald Trump, to an extent, agreed that earmarks should be reintroduced when he stated, “Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

The question behind earmarks is complex. There are many benefits earmarks can provide. For instance, earmarks allow lawmakers to come together in a more bipartisan manner since they can attach “pork,” another term for a government appropriation of money for local projects, to various bills. Lawmakers are able to pass bills with the help of appropriating money to benefit another’s district–– something some opponents would probably call taxpayer-funded bribery. However, according to a University of Missouri study, when the one-year moratorium was placed on earmarks, legislative productiveness severely declined, an indicator that shows a strong correlation on lawmakers’ inability to pass bills without the earmark. More evidence supports this claim when the researchers found, “While pork-barrel spending has no impact on average legislator ideology, [one of the mathematically derived tests] shows that it reduces ideological variance relative to the population.” Additionally, according to John Hudak at the Brookings Institution, when Congress gets rid of earmarks and pork-barrel politics, the power of the pork shifts to the executive branch, where the president will determine how the money is more specifically spent since the lack of legislative clarity on appropriation leaves a vacuum for the White House to fulfill its goals with funds designated only toward departments and functions and not necessarily projects.

At the other end of the argument, opponents of earmarks still remain in the House and Senate. Their argument is quite simple: earmarks create corruption and waste money. Many lawmakers find that earmarks are a complete waste of taxpayer funds. In one article, MSN listed several examples that can attest to this. Some of these examples included the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that appropriated $223 million to connect an Alaskan city to an island airport, $4.5 million dollar speed boats for the Coast Guard that they did not even want, a $500,000 teapot museum, $250,000 for replacing window sills at the Rainier Club in Seattle, just to name a few. The fact that earmarks can provide an easy means to commit corruption is not unknown. In fact, former congressman, Rep. Randy Cunningham, accepted $2.4 million in bribes from contractors to introduce earmarks, which landed him in prison for eight years. Besides breeding corruption and wasting taxpayer dollars, earmarks prevent states from expending money to projects they seek to prioritize. Some earmarks, such as transportation earmarks, according to the Heritage Foundation, “were carved out of each state’s formula allocation so that each dollar devoted to an earmark means one dollar less that is available to the state’s own priority projects.” Heritage also found that states only use about half of the appropriated earmarks from the federal government since they, the states, fail to value the projects as a high priority and thusly do not seek to fund the other part of whatever project the earmark is for.

So, are earmarks worth it? Depends on who you ask. Some would argue that they waste money and only help special interests. Others argue that they bring about compromise and aid the legislative process. Even though earmarks may be controversial, they certainly, to an extent, have a place in the appropriations process. However,  if they were to be brought back, they would need extreme oversight and rules attached to ensure that corruption will not be an issue. Bringing back earmarks in the fashion that they were in use before would be irresponsible, fiscally and ethically. Once certain rules are laid down about how earmarks are introduced, approved, and appropriated, only then should lawmakers consider their return.