Bring Back Congressional Earmarks – But the Right Way

Over the past few election cycles, Congressional earmarks have come to epitomize the worst in “pork-barrel” spending and government waste. Thanks to a combination of bad optics, wasteful behavior, and opaque practices, congressionally-directed appropriations spending justifiably became the target of popular and political vitriol.

Take, for example, the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” where the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska (then president pro tempore of the Senate) and Alaska Congressman Don Young (then chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) set aside $453 million worth of funds to be spent over five years on two massive and controversial projects in their state. (One of these projects would even have been named “Don Young’s Way.”).

Organizations such as Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense had a field day pointing out what they saw as bad behavior.  Political pork soon became a political liability, not just for the direct offenders, but for everyone in Congress. Members eager to disavow their own Bridges to Nowhere began adopting personal policies against submitting earmark requests for their states or districts. Eventually, Congress instituted an all-out ban on earmarks, which continues today.

But if the plan behind banning earmarks was to bring all budget decisions out into the open, the approach has failed miserably. The process of federal funding is actually losing transparency under the new state of affairs. Members are now resorting to “steermarks,” influencing agencies of the executive branch behind closed doors, in order to obtain funding for their priorities. The New York Times, for example, reported that some lawmakers have been furiously lobbying agencies to fund pet projects – and potentially using their power to fund broader agency operations as leverage. Even beginning to track these activities is impossible.

Moreover, the ban on earmarks has actually robbed the political process of a useful tool.

For one thing, earmarks help maintain the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. Without direction from Congress, all discretion to make project funding decisions becomes centralized at the federal agencies, who can be far removed from jurisdictions in need. Congressionally-directed spending helps offset that often murky bureaucracy by ensuring that local interests across the country aren’t ignored, or fall victim to a particular administration’s priorities or partisan interests.

Earmarks can also help engender a sense of fairness among widely disparate geographies and populations. For example, senators from smaller or wealthier states can point to these projects as leveling the playing field, offseting instances, such as “formula funding,” where their jurisdictions get less money because of their smaller size or their demographics.

Most importantly, earmarks help satisfy the need of lawmakers to demonstrate progress to their constituents. The local impact of bringing funding home has true value, much like the benefits of helping local high school students apply to West Point or the other service academies, or helping a constituent who’s having trouble getting their Social Security benefits. Retail politics incentivizes members to overcome ideology and collaborate on tough issues, with the implication that intransigence will not be rewarded. In other words, earmarks are bargaining chips. They establish the common ground that enables legislative activity.

While efforts to restrict and then ban this practice were certainly well-intentioned, the vilification of earmarks has come at a significant cost to bipartisanship and policymaking. As we enter the home stretch of a second fractious Congress without earmarks, the time is ripe to consider reviving earmarks – but the right way.

First, however, we must once and for all agree on what actually constitutes an earmark. Different committees, presidential administrations, and external advocacy groups have coined a wide variety of definitions over time, creating uncertainty and further limiting the scope of potential bipartisan agreement. Once we’ve agreed on what we need to regulate, we can use the following suggested ground rules for a new and improved earmarking process – one that promises to the American people to be free of waste, fraud, and abuse:

1)    Disclose Everything. Members of Congress must be willing to return to the practices instituted by Democrats in 2007 of providing full background information on their proposed earmarks. This means publicly-available and searchable data for each request, including the name and location of the recipient, the purpose of the project, and a certification that the supporting member and their immediate family members have no pecuniary interest in the endeavor.

2)    Don’t Mess with Science. This is one area where a modified ban on earmarks still makes sense – but not because of the problem of waste. Congressionally-directed spending of funds allocated to science-based agencies and offices including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health exposes basic research and development efforts to controversy and politicization, as anyone who remembers Sen. Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards can attest. In many cases, the benefits of these efforts are not immediately recognizable to laypeople, and the vast majority of elected officials and congressional staff lack sufficient training and expertise to assess the full merits and potential of specific scientific proposals. These programs should be allowed to function under their time-tested peer review processes.

3)    Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep. Earmarks should never be used on efforts that would require multiple years of continued support, such as for salaries for individuals whose jobs could be lost at the end of the fiscal year. The reason for such a limitation is simple: without the power of omniscience, members will never be able to guarantee multi-cycle funding with 100 percent confidence, and changes in political environments can jeopardize the long-term sustainability of initiatives that become overly dependent on congressionally-directed spending.

4)    Demand Accountability on the Back End. The appropriations process should not end with a bill’s enactment into law; transparency in earmarking also means that the public has a right to know whether or not a project had the intended positive effect. This requirement could be satisfied through a reporting requirement imposed on the earmark recipient, convening follow-up hearings on earmark use, or creating new subcommittees on investigations and oversight for each legislative committee engaging in earmarking.

In the past decade, we have seen congressional policies on directed spending swing from one extreme to another; from bridges to nowhere to a complete eradication of earmarks that leaves behind elected officials who have little to no reason to work together. The key now is to find a middle ground that incentivizes collaboration and bipartisanship while minimizing any potential for corruption. In employing a new system with clear definitions, complete transparency, minimized potential for controversy, and assured accountability, such a compromise is within reach. Done right, the “bridge to nowhere” could become a bridge to progress on bipartisanship and legislative achievement.

[Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Moira Campion McConaghy

Moira Campion McConaghy is an alumna of both chambers of Congress, having worked in legislative policy positions for members including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Contact her at Follow: @moiramcconaghy