When the GOP took back the House in 2010, it followed through on what many of its members had promised in their campaigns—banning earmarks. Earmarks are the district projects that members of Congress would fund using federal dollars buried in large appropriation bills. Examples of earmarks include museums, research facilities, new military fighter jets – pretty much anything that a spending bill specifically sets aside money for at the request of a member of Congress. (For further details, see the Congressional Research Service’s reports on House and Senate earmark-disclosure rules)
Public opinion turned against earmarks after the media began highlighting questionable projects and portraying them as a waste of taxpayer money. In 2005, the Alaska delegation was criticized for seeking $223 million to build the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” that would have connected the city of Ketchikan, Alaska with the island of Gravina, which had only 50 inhabitants. In 2009, President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill was dubbed “porkulus” by conservatives, despite Democrats’ claims that there were no pet projects funded in the bill.
Earmarks were also linked to bona fide corruption, with members of Congress securing earmarks for lobbyists and special interests in exchange for campaign contributions or even bribes. An infamous example of this was the arrest of California Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham in 2005. He had accepted at least $2.4 million in bribes for steering certain defense projects into the hands of his preferred contractor.
In the run-up to the 2010 midterms, earmarks were the whipping boy of fiscally conservative Republicans, who used them to attack waste and corruption in Washington and also to call attention to the growing federal budget deficit. Five years after the ban went into place, the public is still sour on earmarks. A 2016 Economist Group/ YouGov poll found that 63 percent of Americans approve of the earmark ban and only 12 percent disapprove.
But despite the appeal of ending government waste, many political observers say the earmark ban has done more harm than good. Vox’s Jonathan Allen argues for the return of earmarks. He says they give members an extra incentive to vote for appropriations bills. Bipartisan support for legislation is harder to come by, as members are more ideologically polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Most importantly, appropriations bills are negotiated by party leaders. With the ideological fracture in the House Republican conference and the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, leaders often have trouble mustering enough votes to get spending bills to the president’s desk. Allen contends that earmarks could woo reluctant members into a winning coalition.
Allen also claims that earmarks strengthen Congress’ power relative to the president and improve federal responsiveness to the needs of geographic constituencies. One of the great myths about earmarks is that they increased federal spending. In reality, earmarks do not create new spending. They merely redirect money that was already budgeted. Without congressional earmarks, the president gets to decide where the money goes. This puts Congress in a bind. They are unable to serve the needs of their constituents because the president and members of the executive branch now control spending that would previously have gone to earmarks. For example, Allen points to a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that went to the hometown of Ray LaHood, the first transportation secretary in the Obama administration. Before the earmark ban, a member of Congress may have directed how that money was spent.
Mark Strand and Anca Butcaru of the Congressional Institute concur that the outrage with earmarks was largely overstated. According to them, most of the arguments against earmarks can be traced back to problems in the congressional budgeting process, where members often appropriate funds without authorizing them. Members took advantage of this procedural breakdown and loaded down appropriations bills with unauthorized earmarks. Most of these earmarks were well-intentioned, but the ones that weren’t appeared in the headlines, making Congress look like it was controlled by corrupt and self-interested politicians.
Although they advocate for its return, neither Allen nor Strand and Butcaru think the previous earmark system was innocuous. Funds frequently went to powerful members and their allies or to members in electorally competitive districts. The system encouraged members to spend more time horse trading than mastering policy issues. Perhaps most disturbingly, Allen notes the vast majority of earmarks went to white members rather than minorities.
But whatever its flaws, they agree it was better than the current system, because at least it was mostly transparent. In 2007, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which required members to disclose earmarks. The current system has none of this transparency, as members have to go behind the scenes to work around the earmark ban and secure funding for their districts. Allen recommends returning to the transparent earmark process, while also adding a robust vetting process to weed out suspicious earmarks.
Allen’s suggested reforms also include capping earmarks at 5 percent of the discretionary budget, limiting earmark recipients to public and nonprofit entities, and creating an enforcement mechanism where members who vote against appropriation bills lose their funding. Earmark money allocated to delinquent members and suspicious projects would be redistributed to party leaders and the poorest congressional districts.
The Allen reforms are intended to combat partisan gridlock on spending bills and reclaim Congress’ constitutional spending powers. However, Mark Schmitt, director of political reform at New America, does not think a return to earmarks would make much of a difference in the post-2010 Congress. Simply put, the Republicans elected in the tea party wave are not interested in transactional politics. The conflict in the modern Congress is not over who gets what in the federal budget. It is strictly ideological.
To prove this, Schmitt points to the GOP governors who turned down federal dollars for Medicaid expansion. Their calculus was that, in a hyper-partisan environment, constituents are less interested in district projects than they are in ideological purity. He thinks the same logic applies to Congress, especially as gerrymandering and self-sorting among the electorate create more ideological homogeneity at the district level. A member is unlikely to win a Republican primary because they supported federal spending. In fact, the opposite might be true.
Ryan Alexander and Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense also make a compelling argument against bringing back earmarks. They find little evidence that Congress was better able to break gridlock before the ban. Most of Congress’ signature legislative accomplishments happened in the pre-earmark era. Newt Gingrich championed earmark spending when he became speaker of the House in 1995, but this did not help Congress manage the budget process in a more effective manner. They point to the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which took Congress seven years to pass, even though earmarks were at an all-time high during the early to mid-2000s.
Earmarks certainly allow members to be more responsive to their districts. Although we could debate whether Congress should focus on individual districts rather than national priorities, there is no doubt that members are more in step with their constituents’ needs than the federal bureaucracy. But while they could be helpful in concentrating a relatively small amount of federal money into important projects, earmarks are not a panacea for solving congressional gridlock.
Congress struggles to legislate because of political polarization, various institutional features (e.g., the filibuster) and other factors that slow and stymie the legislative process. Reviving earmarks might help some members generate goodwill in their home districts, but it is far from clear whether bringing back earmarks would grease the skids sufficiently to counter these other forces.
Guest blogger Robert Oldham is CURO Research Fellow at the University of Georgia.