Might Congress enact a compromise to end earmarks as we know them?


For the past several years, there have been murmurings on Capitol Hill about possibly bringing back earmarks. Now it appears possible that the scandal-tainted earmarks of old may never come back.

This week, a congressional committee advocated establishing a “community-focused grant program.” It would authorize up to 1 percent of discretionary spending to be directed by legislators toward projects in their home states.

The community grant concept was crafted by the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which was established in January 2019 to devise 21st-century upgrades to the operations of the House of Representatives. The earmark-replacement proposal was one of 40 recommended reforms announced by the committee on Thursday.

Senator John McCain (D-AZ) stands next to a placard depicting the increase of earmarks in Congress as he waits to speak at a press conference in the Capitol in Washington, February 9, 2006. The press conference, hosted by senators from both parties, was called to announce the introduction of the “Pork -Barrel Reduction Act” in an effort to eliminate extraneous individual earmarks. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

For some years, legislators on both sides of the aisle have offered a few reasons for restoring the practice of allowing an individual legislator to steer spending — or create tax or tariffs — to benefit their home states or districts. Not least, Article I of the US Constitution gives Congress the power to raise revenue and to decide how to spend it. Bringing back earmarks, which Congress banned in 2011, is a way for Congress to recapture some power it had delegated away. “I think we gave up a tool that we need both in terms of helping our own constituents and frankly, limiting the power of the executive branch in a legislatively appropriate way,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) notes.

Other members of Congress point out that inherent to the job of a legislator is directing public revenues towards the public purposes one deems best. “You just can’t expect somebody over there at OMB, who knows nothing about the areas we represent, to have all the knowledge,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Energy-Water Subcommittee told the press. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) put matters more bluntly:

“That’s part of our job — to fight for our state.”

The earmark ban has not been entirely successful. Earmarks still happen, and the ban fomented lettermarking, an even less transparent practice wherein legislators influence agency spending via letters and other means.

Nor was curbing earmarks cost-free. Elected officials — including President Donald Trump — have said ending earmarks has contributed to the polarized, gridlocked appropriations process. The ban deprived chamber leaders of a tool to build cross-partisan, majority coalitions. With no bacon to bring home, legislators in the minority are more likely to toe the party line and vote against spending bills. More prosaically, both many Democrats and Republicans want earmarks to return because they can bolster legislators’ reelection odds.

But House legislators repeatedly have stopped short of reinstituting earmarks because of the horrific taint the practice got during the early 2000s. Legislators and their staffs got caught trading earmarks for bribescampaign donations, and lush junkets for themselves. And Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) $231 billion “bridge to nowhere” earmark became a highly salient symbol of government waste.

The Select Committee’s proposal aims to re-empower individual legislators to direct funding while preventing a return to the bad old days of Casino Jack Abramoff. Corporations would be forbidden from receiving grants. Only state and local governments and not-for-profit organizations could apply through their representatives. Whereas earmarks featured backroom dealing, the community grants process would be paperwork heavy and visible to the public via a new website maintained by the Clerk of the House of Representatives. House Committees ultimately would decide which grants got approved and which did not, and they would report on their decisions publicly. To curb waste, agency inspectors general would audit beneficiaries’ uses of the funds and judge their efficacy.

The House could create the community-focused grant program or something like it by January. Next week, the process begins to consider and adopt new rules for the Congress to be seated in January. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have a rare opportunity to square the circle here.

They could both crow that they are keeping the earmark ban and stand against corruption, which has great optics. And they could make federal spending more responsive to community needs by authorizing the new grants program, which would please their troops and the public too. Good politics and sound policy seldom lineup so neatly — a truth that will not be lost upon House leadership.

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Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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