The Appropriations Committee is reportedly preparing to announce the return of earmarks, a process that inserts individual projects designated for specific interests into a bill. Earmarks are a practice that has become a symbol to the American people of the waste and out-of-control spending in Washington. I am strongly against the return of earmarks.
The earmark moratorium was implemented as a direct result of the events leading up to the elections of 2010. The American people were worried about the country’s growing federal deficits and ballooning public debt. At the time, the debt was estimated to be 62% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2009, President Obama and congressional Democrats passed a $787 billion stimulus bill that was filled with wasteful spending, special projects, and unauthorized programs that completely violated the rules of the road for responsible governance. In a September 2010 Rasmussen poll, 61% of U.S. voters said cutting government spending and deficits would do more to create jobs than President Obama’s proposed $50 billion infrastructure plan. The election of 2010 sent a clear message that the American people wanted Congress to stop wasteful spending.
President Obama in his weekly address on November 13, 2010 called on Congress to stop earmarks. He said that “given the deficits that have mounted up over the past decade, we cannot afford to make these investments [in things like infrastructure, education, research and development] unless we are also willing to cut what we don’t need.” He further went on to say:
“I agree with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who have recently said that in these challenging days, we cannot afford what are called earmarks. These are items inserted into spending bills by members of Congress without adequate review. Now, some of these earmarks support worthy projects in our local communities. But many others do not. We cannot afford Bridges to Nowhere like the one that was planned a few years back in Alaska. Earmarks like these represent a relatively small part of overall federal spending. But when it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact…. We have a chance to not only shine a light on a bad Washington habit that wastes billions of taxpayer dollars, but take a step towards restoring public trust. We have a chance to advance the interests of not only Republicans or Democrats, but of the American people; to put our country on the path of fiscal discipline and responsibility that will lead to a brighter economic future for all. And that is a future I hope we can reach across party lines to build together.”
Today, we are in even more dismal fiscal shape with even larger federal deficits and ballooning public debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) the federal debt held by the public stood at 100% of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2020 and is projected to reach 102% of GDP at the end of 2021. In other words, even though we have the largest economy in the world, we owe more than the entire U.S. economy is producing in a year. If we stay on this course, CBO projects that by 2031, debt would equal 107% of GDP, the highest in the nation’s history.
America cannot afford to go back to including earmarks in some ill-conceived effort to grease the wheels to pass legislation only because it includes pet projects for congressmen. While a small part of the budget, earmarks can cause members of Congress to focus on projects for their districts or state instead of holding government accountable and being fiscally responsible. Congress should follow regular order by authorizing funding for programs with very specific criteria. Legislation, including funding bills, should be passed on its merits, not on whether an earmark is included.
Dr. Tom Coburn, former Senator from Oklahoma, said “earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction.” There is an insatiable appetite for projects and this leads to large bills weighed down with spending our country can ill afford, whether we are talking about appropriations or authorizing bills. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) study showed from 1994 to 2011, there was a 282% jump in earmarks in appropriations bills. In the fiscal year 1994 appropriations bill there were 4,155 and by the 2011 there were 15,887. Also according to CRS, the total value of earmarked funds increased from about $35 billion for 6,000 earmarks in 2000 to over $72 billion for nearly 16,000 earmarks in 2006.
Earmarks get out of control when there is no effective check on total spending while at the same time, earmarks lead to over spending. Members should not feel pressured to support the vicious cycle of increased spending on bad legislation just because it includes earmarks. Especially in this time of the pandemic, Congress should be focused on targeted spending to continue to help the American people who are suffering to recover, not finding ways to load up a bill with sweeteners that may be problematic on its own.
According to a 2016 Economist Group/YouGov poll, 63% of Americans approved the ban on earmarks, only 12% disapproved. This quote by Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz to Just the News makes a strong argument for not lifting the earmark ban. He said, “Earmarks are the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practice in the history of Congress. They led to members, staff, and lobbyists being incarcerated. In a form of legalized bribery, members of Congress vote for tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in appropriations bills in return for a few million dollars in earmarks. Earmarks go to those in power, as shown during the 111th Congress, when the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, who constituted 15% of Congress, got 51% of the earmarks and 61% of the money. Restoring earmarks will lead to the same results.”
I have heard the argument that earmarks are needed to pass bills in a bipartisan manner. I have consistently been ranked among the most bipartisan senators by the Georgetown University’s Lugar Center. I know from experience, true bipartisanship doesn’t come from voting for legislation that I might otherwise have concerns about because an earmark or pet projects are included in a bill. True bipartisanship comes from reaching out across the aisle to reach consensus, even when there are disagreements on other issues, to get things done for the American people.
President Biden, in his inaugural speech, called for “Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.” He also recognized that Americans have serious disagreements. Everyone knows that our country is deeply divided politically. I know from his time in the Senate that President Biden understands that people of good will can have honest disagreements about policy. So, he knows that unity does not mean dropping deeply held beliefs and accepting his policy agenda. As he said, “every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war” and “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.” Real unity requires true bipartisanship and working together to rediscover what binds us together as Americans even when we strongly disagree politically. Earmarks are not a way to bring this unity and in fact will make this unity more difficult by attempting to paper over fundamental disagreements with window-dressing while bypassing the real work of compromise.
In a similar vein, some people argue that earmarks are needed to help pass bills in a timely manner. In 2006, at the height of earmark spending in appropriations bills, only two appropriations bills passed on time. In the ten years prior to the earmark ban, Congress never enacted more than four standalone appropriations bills on time. This holds true for reauthorization bills as well. Most require extensions. In the case of the past several highway reauthorization bills, which were notorious for earmarks before the earmark moratorium, all needed multiple extensions before they were signed into law.
I have also heard the argument that Article I of the Constitution says that Congress holds the power of the purse and that Congress has ceded its own power without earmarks. I agree that Congress does cede its own power, but not by not having earmarks. Rather, Congress cedes its power by failing to follow the budget process and stick to a budget. Also, Congress can be fairly accused of lazy legislating by drafting vague provisions granting authority to agency heads to work out the details Congress can reclaim its legislative authority by including specific guidelines for implementing programs in both authorization and appropriations bills. Congress should regularly review federal programs to ensure that funding criteria reflects the needs of Americans and engage in robust oversight of departments and agencies to ensure congressional intent is met.
Rigorous oversight and well-drafted legislation that clearly sets out congressional intent for how a program should be administered is the job of Congress. A good example of Congress not keeping the power of the purse and delegating significant authority to unelected bureaucrats at the programmatic level is Obamacare, which was rammed through Congress on a party-line vote. The text was around 2,700 pages long, but the regulatory implementation of Obamacare required well over 20,000 pages. That is a bad way to implement public policy, particularly considering that the law redirects one-fifth of the U.S. economy. On top of the law are tens of thousands of pages of federal rules and regulations administered by scores of federal departments, agencies, and boards. This isn’t how our founding fathers envisioned Congress protecting the American people and it is a bad way to do business.
As a matter of fairness, project funding should be merit-based and competitive or allocated by formula. Earmarks undermine state decision-making over funds that are allocated to states through formula-based grants. Political decisions should not preempt state and regional decision-making. They should not be a short cut for state and local government engaging in long-term planning and budgeting for anticipated needs.
Furthermore, state and local governments and other organizations should not be spending time and money to hire lobbyists to chase after federal dollars in hopes of getting an earmark. The money spent on lobbying and travel to pursue an earmark should be applied toward the local project itself. If a federal agency or program isn’t working, members of Congress should fix it instead of seeking a carve out.
Highway authorization bills are a good example of the problem with earmarks. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed the transportation bill because of too many earmarks. That bill included 152 earmarks. In 1998, the transportation bill called TEA-21 included 1,850 earmarks. The State of Florida challenged the earmarks included for the state arguing that the allocated funding did not address the actual transportation needs of the state. The U.S. Department of Transportation overruled those objections. The 2005 bill, called SAFETEA-LU, included 6,371 earmarks. However, under the earmark ban, the last transportation bill distributed 92% of funding to the states through formulas, giving state and local governments control over the funding decisions based on need, safety, engineering and other objective criteria that politically directed earmarks sweep aside. It should also be pointed out that the majority of the earmarked funds in the past came straight out of the allocated formula dollars for each state further eroding merit and state and local decision making. In other words, Washington politicians were making decisions better made by non-partisan boards in state capitols and local communities.
I know that a lot of good has come from projects that I have helped support in Iowa when we had earmarks. I certainly did not want Iowa to miss out on funding just because of Washington dysfunction. However, I also know that many of these earmarks have disrupted state and regional planning efforts. I have no way of knowing what good might have been done had we banned earmarks earlier. I do know that I have faith that the federal money that goes back to Iowa for Iowans to decide how it is spent, is being spent thoughtfully and well. Any good that might come from my being able to direct some small amount of federal taxpayer money to some worthwhile pilot project would be dwarfed by the negative effects of restarting the mad scramble for earmarks.