After a 10-year ban, Congress is reinstating “earmarks,” or funding for pet projects on senators’ and representatives’ home turf. Instead of objecting, governing experts say it’s about time.
Earmarks generated outrage in the early 2000s, amid a stream of lobbying scandals, kickback schemes and fishy projects. Barack Obama called for reforms as both senator and president. After Republicans took control of the House in 2010, they eliminated earmarks as a statement of fiscal discipline.
The ban doesn’t seem to have accomplished much, however, and Democrats who now control both the House and the Senate are reviving pork-barrel politics. That might allow Congress to function better. “There are a lot of reasons to bring back earmarks,” says John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. “Earmarks can foster bipartisanship. Earmarking happens no matter what, and right now we have a lot of executive branch earmarks happening instead of Congressional ones. Congress should take that power back from the executive branch.”
There will be new rules for earmarks, meant to prevent past abuses. First, they’re not called earmarks anymore. Instead, they’re now “community project funding,” a term obviously meant to connote investments in parks, schools, health clinics, museums and other local resources voters feel good about.
There are also new disclosure and qualification rules. Before the ban, the only ethical requirement was that earmarks couldn’t financially benefit the spouse of the senator or representative requesting the funding. That left plenty of room for members of Congress to direct funding toward individuals, companies and other organizations that might be campaign donors, political allies or chums.
New rules proposed by Rep. Rosa Delauro of Connecticut, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, will prohibit earmarks that benefit business or other for-profit organizations. Requests for funding must be posted online, for transparency. Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, will regularly audit a sample of projects to probe for abuse.
Total spending on earmarks each year can’t exceed 1% of discretionary funding, which is the money Congress appropriates for various programs every year. As a portion of all spending—including mandatory outlays such as Medicare and Social Security—earmarks would account for barely 0.3%. The Senate hasn’t yet agreed to the same rules, but it’s working through the process. Members of Congress will begin requesting pet projects as Congress develops various appropriations bills likely to pass later this year.
Restoring earmarks will give Congressional leaders new negotiating tools as they try to pass contentious legislation. Earmarks are a way of cajoling senators or representatives to vote for bills they might not otherwise support, in exchange for projects they can tout to constituents back home. In the past, "bringing home the bacon" has been one way of generating bipartisan support for bills the minority party might otherwise have no incentive to back. That’s especially important in the Senate, where it takes a 60-vote majority to pass most bills.
Bipartisanship in Congress has declined during the decade the earmark ban has been in place. The whole nation has become more divided, for reasons unrelated to earmarks, such as worsening wealth and income inequality. But researchers at the American Enterprise Institute found recently that “some members [of Congress] believe that the loss of earmarking has increased polarization and taken away one of the few tools Congress has for building bipartisan consensus.”
Earmarks could be crucial to Democrats as they try to generate support for infrastructure spending, green-energy investment, tax hikes and other elements of President Biden’s agenda—especially since Dems have extremely narrow majorities in both the House and the Senate. “Earmarks are a very important tool for leadership on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader, told Yahoo Finance in January. “Using leadership opportunities like that, tools that give you more of a chance for senators and members of the House to feel invested in a piece of legislation, can dramatically augment your ability to get something done.”
Infrastructure legislation is tailor-made for earmarks, since it doles out money that ultimately funds local construction. “The return of earmarks should be viewed as directionally positive for infrastructure spending,” analyst Isaac Boltansky of Compass Point Research & Trading wrote to clients in early March. A shrewd approach for Democrats would be to identify gettable Republican votes, then offer funding for high-priority projects in those states and districts. Enlisting governors, mayors and local council members to help lobby for funding could increase the pressure to vote for a bill.
Unseemly as this type of dealmaking may be, it has been a seminal feature of legislation since the founding of the country. During the decade-long ban, earmarks didn’t disappear—they shifted to the executive branch, as the administrations of Presidents Obama and Trump exercised greater control over local spending of money appropriated by Congress in huge “omnibus” bills. But Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress spending authority, and some critics of the ban argue Congress abdicated this responsibility.
Support for ending the ban isn’t universal. Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, argues that “putting lipstick on earmarks does not prevent them from being good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending and the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practice in the history of Congress.” Some Republicans back a bill that would ban earmarks permanently. Political scholars Kevin Kosar and Zachary Courser support lifting the ban, but they argue the House’s new disclosure rules are too weak. They want a centralized website listing all proposed earmarks in user-friendly fashion, instead of allowing each member of Congress to post requests on their own sites.
One thing that seems likely is the vilification of earmarks once they’re back in fashion, akin to the notorious “bridge to nowhere” Congress tried to fund in 2005. That bridge would have connected two inhabited islands in Alaska, but critics lampooned it as a ghastly excess exemplifying everything wrong with Washington. “It wasn’t a bridge to nowhere,” says Hudak. “It was a bridge to a community that seriously needed a connection. It’s a good example of distorting the realities of the earmarking process.” There will be more of that.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.