In-Depth: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced this bill to ensure that earmarks remain banned in Congress:
“It’s time to stick a fork in congressional pork with a permanent ban on earmarking. Republicans were beaten like a borrowed mule in the 2006 elections largely because of the corruption associated with earmarks. Let’s not test the voters again by leaving the door open for a return to the pork barrel politics that sent members of Congress to prison and saddled taxpayers with a bridge to nowhere, a teapot museum, and countless other wasteful pet projects.”
Cosponsor Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) adds that banning earmarks protects taxpayers’ dollars and ensures that projects are prioritized on merit:
“Earmarks are the Washington swamp creature that just never seems to die—emerging from the lower depths every few years in an effort to waste taxpayer dollars on politicians’ pet projects. Our bipartisan bill would ban their return by permanently ending the practice of pork-barrel patronage so we can ensure… taxpayer dollars are protected from waste, and projects are prioritized on merit."
FreedomWorks supports this bill, as it believes earmarks lead to corruption and runaway government spending. Adam Brandon, President of FreedomWorks, says:
“Earmarks, called by then-Rep. Flake in 2006 as the 'currency of corruption,' are specific line items in a spending bill, such as an appropriations or transportation bill, for a project or program. Not only corruptive in nature, they are also, as then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) astutely put it, 'the gateway drug to spending addiction.' Two things that Washington does not need is more corruption and more spending… At their peak in the mid 2000s, total earmarks reached nearly 14,000 in a single year (2005), costing upwards of $30 billion (2006). Proponents of earmarks argue that these extra spending provisions funding often-useless projects 'grease the wheels' for legislation by persuading individual members to come on board for the sake of earmarked spending for their districts, and come at a small monetary price to taxpayers. They refuse to acknowledge the corruption and spending addiction that comes with earmarks, not to mention the public opposition to the pernicious practice.”
In a January 9, 2018 policy meeting at the White House, President Donald Trump suggested that Congress should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks:
“Our system lends itself to not getting things done, and I hear so much about earmarks — the old earmark system — how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks. Of course, they had other problems with earmarks. But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks… You should do it, and I’m there with you, because this system really lends itself to not getting along. It lends itself to hostility and anger, and they hate the Republicans. And they hate the Democrats. And in the old days of earmarks, you can say what you want about certain Presidents and others, where they all talk about they went out to dinner at night and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system, and maybe we should think about it.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who is poised to become House majority leader when the new Congress convenes in January 2019, supports earmarks. Early in 2019, he testified to the House Rules Committee that he’d support reinstating earmarks, as long as certain conditions to ensure their responsible use were met. In December 2018, Rep. Hoyer reiterated his position, stating that he expects bipartisan support for a return to earmarks:
“To say that a member of Congress is unable to help his or her own district I think is incorrect. We are co-equal branches — that is our authority under the Constitution. We don’t have to go hat in hand to the president and say, please, will you spend money on this, that, or the other?”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, made a return to earmarking one of her key pledges to colleagues when she sought their support to lead the Appropriations Committee in the new Congress:
“I will work tirelessly to ensure spending bills help address local issues in members’ districts... The caucus should also review procedures and work with the Senate to determine the most effective way to carry out our constitutional responsibilities through congressionally directed spending.”
Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the demonization of earmarks is a mistake for politics as the art of dealmaking:
“The whole focus on bashing earmarks has been a big mistake. Politics is about making deals, and making deals is difficult and complicated. Votes sometimes put [members] in trouble in their home districts. It’s very helpful to offer them some protection in the form of an earmark.”
In January 2018, a House Rules Committee hearing on earmarks’ potential return brought proponents from both sides of the aisle who praised earmarks as a dealmaking tool.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) says that in the lead up to the new Congress taking over in January 2019, he hasn’t heard a groundswell within the Senate GOP conference about reviving earmarks, and he thinks it would be a bad move: “I’ve learned up here that sometimes you got to keep a closed mouth and open ears, and I’m willing to listen, but the burden of proof is on them because I’ve never seen earmarks work.” However, Sen. Kennedy added, he wasn’t surprised the House Democrats want to restore earmarks, as “they [Democrats] like to spend money like it was ditchwater.”
There’s also a Democratic argument to be made in favor of earmarks, in that representatives for poor areas need earmarks to make up for their constituents’ lack of ability to compete in terms of campaign donations or lobbying power. Advocates for earmarks argue that they also create opportunities to fund neglected services or projects outside D.C.
There’s a House bill, the Pulled Pork Act (HR 4818), introduced by Rep. Jacky Rosen (R-NV), that also bans earmarks. Unlike this bill, which bans the Senate from considering legislation with earmarks, the House bill puts the onus on federal agencies to identify earmarked funds allocated to them by Congress and report those earmarks to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which would publish a list of attempted earmarks and the annual savings resulting from the inability to spend those funds. Any improperly earmarked funds would be returned from the receiving agencies to the Treasury.
Sen. Flake introduced a House version of this bill, H.R. 3707, in 2011, when he was then a member of the House. That bill would have permanently eliminated earmarks from the legislative process by: 1) prohibiting the House from considering legislation containing earmarks and 2) stripping earmarks in legislation being considered by the House before it could proceed. That bill, which attracted the bipartisan support of one Democrat and one Republican, died in committee without a vote.
Of Note: Earmarks — a type of spending going specifically to one project or district — drew the American public’s ire as an example of congressional cronyism in the early to mid 2000s. The most infamous example was Rep. Don Young (R-AK)’s “Bridge to Nowhere,” which cost $223 million in taxpayer dollars to build a bridge to an island of only 50 residents that was already served by a ferry.
Members of Congress have also gotten into legal trouble over earmarks: In 2006, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) was convicted and sent to prison for seven years after taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for steering earmarks to their companies.
Earmarks were temporarily banned in November 2010, about two weeks after Republicans won back the House majority, and took effect in January 2011. The change was made through an internal decision of the House Republican Conference, rather than a bill receiving a vote on the Congress floor. Since 2011, the temporary earmark ban has been extended several times in both the House and Senate.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / malerapaso)