Discussions about bringing back earmarks have germinated on Capitol Hill in recent years. But now House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro announced weeks ago her committee’s plan to solicit members’ requests for earmarks, the system of designating funds for specific local projects that’s been banned for a decade. Earmarks were eliminated in 2011 by Republicans who won the House with the Tea Party movement, who insisted the federal government tighten its spending. Infamously, the “bridge to nowhere” became the rallying symbol of why earmarks are wasteful and need to stop.
While the Tea Party had more role in setting the stage, it was an intraparty agreement not to embed earmarks in appropriations. However, it seems all Republicans did not universally accept it. But Pres. Obama had a significant hand in bringing on a de facto ban by declaring that he would veto any appropriations bill containing earmarks – essentially attempting to look as fiscally responsible and anti-pork as the Tea Party. Thus, there is bipartisan blame for the disappearance of the earmark. But the reality is with earmarks, everybody wins.
Restoring earmarks will allow Congress to reclaim the spending authority it has given away to the presidency. It puts the power of the purse strings back in Congress’s hands as it should be and provides needed funding for district projects that make communities better. Earmarks are certainly a benefit for government affairs professionals, members of Congress, and the people. Furthermore, earmarks could help with the absence of legislative activity that has plagued Congress as of late.
Most legislative bills never pass Congress – many are left as ideas or die in the drafting stage; they often need a majority of congressional support, which is nearly impossible given the partisan divide. Moreover, in today’s filibuster-prone world, you still need three-fifths of the Senate to pass anything. And even if a bill manages to pass this process, it could die in conference when the Senate and House convene to iron out their differences. This legislative process is rare.
Democrats’ rebranding earmarks as “Community Project Funding” details a plan that will exclude for-profit companies, and the money available will only be a small slice of appropriations. The reality is earmarks represented nearly one percent of the total U.S. budget. Congress was created to be the responsive branch of government, and earmarks help with government actions, ideally creating political equality. By this, I mean the policy areas of national defense, education, foreign aid, parks, and recreation, improving and protecting the nation’s health, especially amid COVID-19, preserving the environment, and refining our infrastructure to improve the country.
When polarization and the political divide are high, reviving earmarks would benefit both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans would score consistent ideological favor with their base, while Democrats would benefit from specific project grants and direct payments while excluding the corporations’ wealthiest. Legislators who effectively bring home the “pork” would also expose which Congress members are serious about legislating rather than being stuck at Twitter and media-clout personality seekers.
Most would agree that the institution of Congress is broken. Earmarks can help fix it. They provide full transparency and accountability for all projects, spending, and legislation. They allow, even demand, that Congress operates not just on the level of grand national policy and philosophy of government, where stasis seems to rule, but also the pragmatically impactful local level of specific constituent needs. The opportunity – necessity – for doing both can often open the pathway to breaking logjams and surmounting filibuster efforts.
By federal standards, this process improves Congress, helps districts, and brings further dignity to the profession of government relations. The support of earmarks is not about greasing the wheels and give-a-ways of baubles and bibelots or having whiskey lunches, but this is about restoring trust and getting to the people’s business of legislating. A Congress accountable to the spending of federal money going to one program, policy area, or another in exchange for a vote is better than a Congress being beholden to outside special interest money.
Quardricos Driskell is a federal lobbyist and an adjunct professor with the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.