Could Earmarks Be Reinstated?
The topic of congressional earmarks is news again, and that’s a good thing. President Donald Trump has suggested bringing back the congressional budget process known as earmarks, in which members of Congress can direct spending to particular projects within their district by adding riders to spending bills.
For decades, earmarks were a regular feature of spending bills and were often part of horse-trading over bills. Members generally respected each other’s earmarks in a quid pro quo relationship: I’ll approve your community arts center if you approve my waste treatment plant. Sometimes members would make their support of a particular bill conditional on earmarks.
Although the media frequently derided the process as “pork,” there was nothing inherently corrupt about it—as long as it remained transparent and open. In fact, earmarks gave members incentives to cooperate, even across party lines. In many cases, the earmark process may have been a more streamlined and efficient way of directing resources toward needed projects. Many important water and infrastructure projects with important benefits for the whole country were funded that way, wholly or partly.
It was only when rules of Congress allowed congressional sponsors to hide their identities and to slip in riders with no transparency or accountability that corruption crept in and, in a few cases, some earmarks became part of the “swamp” payoff culture.
A few highly publicized cases, such as Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” were allowed to unfairly brand the entire earmark process as corrupt. Indeed, the New York Times began a recent article attacking the earmarks, “Remember the notorious bridge to nowhere?”
Since Congress ended earmarks in 2011 on a bipartisan basis, many members have privately complained that the surrender amounted to Congress ceding a large portion of its constitutional budget authority to the executive branch.
Earmarks have defenders across the ideological spectrum. A 2009 article in the Nation reiterated, “…there is nothing inherently evil or bad about [earmarks]. In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine any other way of crafting a federal budget. … Of course some projects benefit some localities and other projects benefit other localities. This is part of the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a system with multiple layers of accountability. Members of the House of Representatives are elected from local districts and they are supposed to worry about being responsive to local interests. They are re-elected every two years to ensure maximum accountability to these local interests… It is right and proper to have both our local interests and state interests represented in political bargaining.”
An old Washington saying is, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and we agree that sunlight—that is, transparency—can address any potential issues with earmarks. With the proper safeguards, earmarks can work well and efficiently to get resources to where they are needed, while bypassing an often dysfunctional budget process and clawing back some of the obstructive power of cumbersome federal bureaucracies.