Congressional Dems want to bring home the bacon
The practice of earmarking could return to next year’s budget
WASHINGTON—When former U.S. Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., served in Congress in the early 2000s, he entertained women on a yacht in the Potomac River. A defense contractor who was bribing the congressman provided the lavish accommodations in exchange for Cunningham’s earmarking of funds for his company.
Cunningham got caught and went to jail for more than seven years. In the meantime, tea party Republicans worked with leadership in Congress in 2011 to ban the practice of earmarking that enabled Cunningham’s and others’ corruption. Cunningham got out of prison in 2013, and President Donald Trump pardoned him in January. In another reversal, Democrats in Congress want to bring back earmarks. This time, they say, reforms will keep lawmakers from incurring the kind of scandals that got the practice prohibited in the first place.
Earmarks are provisions inserted into larger spending bills that directly funnel federal dollars to projects in congressional districts or states at the behest of individual lawmakers. This time around, Democrats are calling earmarks “member-directed spending” or “community-focused grant programs.” The chief supporters of the change, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. They say the ability to direct spending toward local projects in appropriations bills will give Democrats and Republicans more incentive to negotiate and strengthen bipartisanship.
Critics say earmarks allowed horse-trading and backroom deals to the benefit of a select few. When tea party activists rode into Congress in 2010 on a wave of public criticism of congressional spending, they focused on blaming earmarks, among other practices, as wasteful and scandal-prone.
“There’s nothing more emblematic of the swamp,” said Matthew Dickerson, director of the Grover M. Hermann Center at the Heritage Foundation. “The government is supposed to promote the general welfare … in contrast with advancing the particular welfare or using the power of the federal government to send money to one thing that just benefits a small group of people with a special interest.”
Democrats have yet to announce what reforms they will introduce along with earmarking. Punchbowl News reported they are talking about banning earmarks for for-profit companies. Members of Congress also would have to disclose the details of who requested the earmark and where the money would go. The projects would be “budget neutral” and could only redirect already appropriated funds as opposed to adding money to the budget. ABC News reported that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said money for special projects would be limited to around $13 billion, or 1 percent of the total $1.3 trillion of discretionary money Congress controls.
Support for or against earmarks does not always split along partisan lines. Former President Barack Obama agreed with congressional Republicans in opposing the practice and said he would not sign bills with earmarks in them. Trump in 2018 said his party should bring back earmarks because of the “great friendliness” it fostered among the parties.
John Hudak with the Brookings Institution argued that banning earmarks merely “transfers that power and that practice from the legislative branch to the executive branch … banning congressional earmarking means that decisions over certain types of funding are made by bureaucrats and appointees.” He pointed out that many Americans would prefer that their own representatives make those decisions.
One group is sure to benefit from the return of earmarks: lobbyists. Even if private companies are locked out of the process, nonprofits and state and local governments will still push for funding for specific projects or needs.
Earmarks will also benefit the party that has the majority.
“Earmarks serve a very key legislative purpose if you have a slim majority and are trying to enforce party discipline on big bills, which is exactly the situation we’re in right now,” said Ryan Burge, an assistant political science professor at Eastern Illinois University. Party leaders can use earmarks to convince recalcitrant lawmakers to agree to a difficult vote in exchange for money for a local project, like a community center, library, or a new post office.
Burge said they “look really bad on the surface” but might be worth the bad press for Democrats who can use the practice to pass bills popular to their constituents.
Last year, Senate Republicans backed permanently banning earmarks. Some Republicans, notably Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., endorsed bringing back the practice with certain reforms.
Members of both parties want to avoid scandals that caused the public to sour on the practice in the past. Earmarks became synonymous with an infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a $223 million proposal spearheaded by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that would have connected the small town of Ketchikan, Alaska, to an airport. The project was eventually scrapped. The PMA Group scandal involved Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., directing millions in federal earmark dollars toward the firm in defense contracts.
In a Jan. 25 op-ed for Roll Call, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she would oppose any defense appropriations bill that included earmarks: “Is anyone surprised that members of Congress truly believe Washington is just not swampy enough?”
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