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The Return of Earmarks

Long synonymous with pork-barrel spending, earmarks were eliminated a decade ago. Here’s why they’re coming back.
May 3, 2021
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(Photos: Shutterstock / GettyImages)

Democratic leaders in Congress, with support from some Republicans, are ending the decade-long ban on overt earmarking in the appropriations process, to mixed reviews. The move is seen in some quarters as a dangerous gamble for an institution already viewed dimly by much of the public. Others see the potential for a revival of congressional self-respect and productivity. A mix of some good and bad effects seems most likely, and might be worth a guarded test run.

Earmarking has been part of congressional culture from its earliest days. It is natural for senators and representatives to believe that they, and not unelected officials, are in the best position to maximize the local value of federal funds. Earmarking allows individual legislators to steer government money toward specific recipients, or narrowly defined functions, often as exceptions to more general rules of allocation.

Part of the motivation is a demonstration of institutional power. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to appropriate funds from the Treasury, and many in the legislative branch interpret this “power of the purse” quite broadly. Earmarking allows them to direct funds in ways that cannot be overridden by the decisions of executive branch officials.

Politics is an obvious consideration, too. Earmarking delivers tangible results for constituents. Funding for an elementary school, a university, a library, a park, or a bus station—made possible by an earmark—is a demonstration of effectiveness that translates well on the campaign trail.

Since the ban took effect in 2011, congressional leaders have missed the practice. Earmarks only make it into appropriations bills when they are blessed by those who control the legislative process—that is, the chairs and ranking members of the relevant committees, along with the party leaders in each chamber. Thus, earmarking can be a powerful tool for corralling votes, by approving earmarks only for members who vote as their leaders wish them to on controversial, measures. Legislative gridlock, so evident in the last decade, is sometimes attributed to the diminished control leaders have over rank-and-file members.

All of this can be conceded while still being wary of what might happen with earmarking’s return. Whatever the potential benefits, the most recent memory of the practice—from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s—is not favorable, to put it mildly.

Much of the blame for what transpired falls on the Republicans holding leadership positions during that period. After nearly losing control of the House in both 1996 and 1998, the GOP seized on earmarking as its salvation. Vulnerable members were given wide latitude to stuff all manner of local funding projects into appropriation measures. The results were grotesque. In 1994, before Republicans took over Congress, the appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation had 140 earmarks. After a decade of GOP control, the 2005 bill had 2,094. Similarly, in 1994, the bill covering veterans’ affairs and housing had 30 earmarks; in the 2005 bill, there were 2,080.

Data via Citizens Against Government Waste; graph via James C. Capretta, “Improving Congressional Spending Habits” (2007)

The absurdity was on full display in a small, obscure federal agency providing technical support for the nation’s museums and libraries—the Institute for Museum and Library Services. IMLS only employed 53 people in 2004, at a cost of about $10 million. Its budget was far higher, however, to accommodate all of the earmarking requests shoehorned into its annual appropriations language. The account became a dumping ground for members to show their clout. Among the recipients of targeted federal funding in 2004 were the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pennsylvania ($50,000), the Placer County Library in Auburn, California ($50,000), and Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada ($150,000).

Out-of-control volume was not the only problem. Unsupervised earmarking is, apparently, a temptation too powerful to resist for some unscrupulous legislators, as congressional history has amply demonstrated. A new offramp on a highway—courtesy of an earmark—can make or break nearby businesses, and thus also create an environment ripe for unethical deal-making.

Congress can ill afford another hit to its already low reputation. If, after a period of a year or two, the return of earmarking coincides with fresh stories of House and Senate members profiting personally from their interventions, this will have been a failed experiment.

The Democrats eager to bring back the practice, with quiet support from many Republican appropriators, are promising its return will not cause national embarrassment. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Leahy is requiring all requests to be in writing, and posted online for public review. The total amount set aside for “congressionally directed spending items”—Leahy’s preferred term—will be limited, and requesters must certify that they and their families will not profit if their petitions are approved for inclusion in the appropriations bills.

While these guardrails help ease concerns, the more powerful reason to countenance a return of earmarking is the sorry state of Congress. The practice was banned (in its visible forms) starting in 2011, and yet Congress’s performance has gotten worse. The country badly needs a functioning legislative branch that strikes compromises on festering issues, such as immigration, climate change, election rules, and much else. If earmarking helps House and Senate leaders round up the votes for such bills, that would make it worthwhile to test if legislators can be trusted again with small annual allowances.