WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Doing Earmarks Right

This space has long supported what used to be called congressional earmarks and are now being revived and rebranded as “community project funding.”

Earmarks are bills, or clauses in bills, that direct spending within a particular congressional district, usually to a specific project. Contrary to the fears of the Tea Party activists who succeeded in persuading the GOP to go along with banning earmarks in 2011, when the Republicans had majority control of Congress, earmarks were never responsible at any time for a significant portion of the federal budget or debt. A group of hard-core Republicans remains opposed to reviving them. 

The publication Axios reported that in a February 26 briefing, House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told the Democratic caucus she wants to bring back earmarks with proposed new “guardrails” to keep them open and transparent, avoiding past scandals. 

The guardrails would include:

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• limiting individual requests to no more than 10 for each House member; 

• requiring members to show evidence of community support;

• requiring members to certify that they have no financial interest in the project; and

• limiting the total amount of community funded projects to 1 percent of all discretionary spending.

Voters of a certain age will remember Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s “Golden Fleece Awards” that shone a spotlight on earmarked pet projects that were absurd or obviously not worthy. Reporters loved that list. Even in the earmark era, no one wanted to end up on it.

But Jackson notwithstanding, most earmarks were always above-board. They were a kind of lubricant for getting deals done in Congress. “I’ll support your earmarks if you support mine.” An unwritten code prevented members from criticizing earmarked projects in another member’s district. 

There was nothing inherently wrong with this kind of horse-trading, as long as it was done in the sunlight to benefit needed projects. President Donald Trump, the “swamp-drainer” himself, was recorded musing that members of Congress “were nicer” during the earmark era, to the embarrassment of the hardcore anti-earmark faction. A former aide to House Speaker John Boehner recently told a news outlet that the demise of earmarks handcuffed the speaker in getting things done.

But a torrent of bad publicity surrounding a few high-profile cases of earmark abuse—including the notorious “bridge to nowhere” and a California bribery scandal that resulted in jail terms—persuaded many members to vote to suspend them in 2011. 

It was a victory of perception over reality. Earmark abuse became a problem only when paired with corrupt practices like allowing private beneficiaries to write bills and burying earmark riders in completely unrelated bills with no named sponsors or attribution. Sunshine and transparency were and remain the best means for ensuring that earmarks stay honest.

So DeLauro’s guardrails are fine, and we support them.  But there’s another caveat to mention. Some have suggested that with a closely divided Senate, Democrats were motivated to bring earmarks back as a way to provide incentives to get big deals done, including deals that might not get done otherwise.

Many members of Congress have always believed that earmarks are a necessary part of Congress’ constitutional power of the purse. A lot of worthy lock and dam and other infrastructure projects have been fast-tracked and supported over the years thanks to earmarks. Infrastructure continues to be a prime area where earmarks could help speed things along.

However, using the promise of supporting specific earmarks as a way for the majority to get bills passed that would not otherwise get bipartisan support would be a bad use of earmarks. Instead of simply supporting each other’s earmarks, the play would be, “I’ll support your earmarks if you support mine—and also this big bill that would never get passed otherwise.” 

We hope all members of Congress would resist those kinds of pressures and put forward only those projects for “community project funding” that are worthy of support and answer a real need, not as a sweetener for unpopular measures that can’t get support on their own. Let’s support earmarks, but for the right reasons (like infrastructure) and to benefit the right projects (like locks and dams).