WASHINGTON – Congressional earmarks, once symbols of political corruption and profligate spending, could be primed for a comeback on Capitol Hill a decade after they were eliminated.
Key leaders on Capitol Hill say it’s time to end the moratorium provided that rules requiring transparency ensure only legitimate projects make the cut. They also say the return of earmarks would help build public support for Congress to pass more bills, including a COVID-19 stimulus package or a massive infrastructure bill, if they know there’s something that would benefit them directly.
“It gives people the sense that (Congress) does in fact focus on them,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told USA TODAY in a phone interview last week. “After all, every district sends a lot of tax money and (this) sends a lot back for specific projects.”
Earmarks – funding for specific projects usually inserted into broad spending bills – were eliminated in 2011 by Republicans who had just recaptured the House riding a wave of Tea Party support from voters insisting the federal government tighten its purse strings.
That was several years after earmarks were at the center of corruption probes involving several lobbyists, lawmakers and congressional aides.
In all, more than a dozen people were convicted amid a scandal that began in the early 2000s and ended the political career of GOP congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, who admitted taking bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Native American tribes had hired Abramoff who had promised he could use his connections in the GOP-led Congress to secure earmarks that tribal leaders wanted.
A separate earmarking scandal led to the bribery-related conviction in 2005 of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who was caught steering work to favored military contractors.
Other earmarks drew scorn for carrying enormous price tags with seemingly little public benefit, such as the “bridge to nowhere” sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. In 2005, Young directed $231 million in an earmark to fund a bridge connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to Gravina Island that would serve relatively few residents given the enormous price tag, a move he later withdrew after withering public criticism.
In response, the House reformed its rules to require that the sponsor of every earmark must be made public.
Those earmarks, officially referred to as “congressionally directed spending,” became reviled by conservative Republicans as the root of expanding budget deficits and surging national debt. In 2014, then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called them “the gateway drug to Washington’s spending addiction.”
Now it appears there’s enough of a groundswell to bring them back – under certain conditions: Each earmark’s sponsor must be identified; no private sector entity can be a recipient; and members cannot have a financial interest in the project the federal aid is benefitting.
The bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in September endorsed earmarks, using a competitive grant process to foster a more equitable allocation of aid for community projects around the nation.
But freshman South Carolina Republican William Timmons, who serves on the panel, warned that reviving earmarks might not only disproportionately favor senior lawmakers but “could be used to influence members to vote in a way they otherwise would not on unrelated legislation.”
The budget for earmarks would be limited to 1% of the $1.3 trillion in discretionary money Congress has control over, or about $13 billion, according to Hoyer.
The return of earmarks has the backing of both the top Republican (Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.) and the top Democrat (Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which handles spending bills. A spokesperson for Shelby said he’s “supportive of directed appropriations that are transparent and meritorious.”
But asked Tuesday by reporters whether he would follow the House in bringing back earmarks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was noncommittal.
“I haven’t given any real thought to that,” he said. “That’s a decision obviously the majority has decided to make over there and it’ll be interesting to see how the Republicans in the House respond to it.”
Among those supporting their return is Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of congressional moderates who have been frustrated at the lack of legislative achievements during the past four years.
Reed said he supports the return of earmarks “as long as the reforms of full transparency and accountability are included.”
Earmarks, Reed said, would help a divided Congress pass more bills by making sure lawmakers had a vested interest in the legislation that comes before them.
“I call tell you many members are so frustrated because they’re like: ‘All I do here is maybe vote three or four times a year on anything that’s relevant, and actually I have no input on what that package looks like,” he told USA TODAY. “It’s just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote and I really don’t even know what’s in it and none of my priorities get addressed because it’s all done in the front office’.”
“But with congressionally directed spending, your priorities – why you ran to be a member of congress – you’re actually doing the work you were sent to D.C. to do,” he said.
Steve Ellis, president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense which opposes their return, noted that the perennial gridlock on spending bills that has led to occasional government shutdowns took place even when earmarks were part of the congressional menu.
“People seem to think Congress was a well-oiled machine when there were earmarks. In fact, the last time Congress passed all the spending bills individually and on-time – so-called regular order – was in 1994,” Ellis said. “Earmarks are not some magic pixie dust that makes everything work. Instead, it takes legislative leadership and hard work.”
But Hoyer said there’s a broader principle in play as well: by banning earmarks for the past decade, Congress effectively has ceded its constitutional authority over the power of the purse to the executive branch.
“The Constitution of the United States says that Congress shall raise and spend money,” he said. “The Congress decides where the money is spent.”