The practice ended in 2011 after the Tea Party won a number of seats in Congress and reports surfaced of congressmen abusing the earmark system. Members lobbying for wasteful projects like Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” — a $223 million earmark buried inside a federal transportation bill in 2005 — certainly didn’t help matters.
But earmarks, at least in a limited capacity, could soon be returning. House Democrats have resurrected them, and House Republicans, in a secret ballot vote of 102-84, agreed to allow them. While many in the Senate support earmarks, it is not yet clear what their fate will be in the upper chamber.
However, if earmarks do return, they increase the likelihood of bipartisan efforts in Congress once again. When members can negotiate for district or state-specific assistance to be written into a major bill — such as infrastructure or spending legislation — they are predisposed to compromise and ultimately vote for the bill.
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, recently announced a thoughtfully limited restoration of community project funding, an effort she says will allow Congress to help their constituents, “particularly now as the pandemic exposed so many inequalities and needs.”
However, to apply for the funding, members of Congress must meet a variety of strict new standards. DeLauro says, in the interest of transparency, members must declare they have no financial interests or conflicts. They must secure the support of local officials for these projects. And members may secure funding for no more than 10 projects per year, with total spending not exceeding 1% of total discretionary spending, which amounts to approximately $14 billion out of $1.4 trillion.
I spent the first five years of my nearly 14-years in Congress directing federal funding — including earmarks — into appropriations and surface transportation bills, and that was before I even became a member of the Appropriations Committee. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee my freshmen year in 2005, I even managed to secure $45 million of funding for surface transportation projects in my Pennsylvania district. Earmarks like these allowed us to widen and enhance Route 412 into Bethlehem, build the American Parkway Bridge in Allentown, create an intermodal transportation center in Easton and upgrade a dangerous railroad crossing in Emmaus. Talk about deliverables for a congressman!
Now imagine if community project funding were available for the upcoming infrastructure legislation that the Biden administration hopes to pursue. More members of Congress would be invested in the legislative process, so they could deliver vital funding to their communities. And let’s be real — if funding for roads, bridges, public safety equipment, hospitals, schools, food banks and homeless shelters do not motivate congressmen to work for the benefit of their communities, nothing will.
Some will argue funding congressionally designated projects is simply pork-barrel spending. They will say one man’s vital spending is another man’s wasteful tax dollars on unnecessary pet projects. But who better understands the needs of a local constituency, the local congressman or some bureaucrat embedded in Washington, DC? The executive branch dislikes congressionally directed project funding because, I suspect, its bureaucrats want to maintain control over all spending decisions.
Many presidents would much prefer to have members of Congress approach their departments and agencies on bended knee, pleading for funding. After all, it gives them leverage over the legislative branch. So, it should come as no surprise that while Sen. Barack Obama supported earmarks, President Barack Obama opposed them. Where one stands depends on where one sits.
But the bottom line is Congress will be strengthened by earmarks. Congress has ceded far too much of its power of the purse authority for too long to the presidency. Most recently, it did so shamefully in the last years of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the executive branch diverted military construction funding to the border wall without congressional approval.
It’s long past time Congress reasserted itself — and, in doing so, better serve the American people. A limited restoration of earmarks is a good place to start, rebalancing the institutional relationship between Congress and the President.
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