It’s Time to Bring Back Earmarks
by Howard Marlowe
It has been nearly eight years since Congress gave away control over spending. Next January when the new House of Representatives meets to adopt its rules, it can correct that mistake by striking its “temporary” ban on congressionally-directed-funding, or earmarks. Since 2008, Congress has only once passed a few funding bills on time, and the Congressional Civility Rating has accelerated its nosedive. There is no such rating, of course, but you get my point. Over the past several years, there has been a significant increase in congressional partisan name-calling and rock-throwing. They don’t even walk from one side of the room to the other to chat. Earmarks require elected officials to collaborate, something that has been a rarity in Congress. Bringing back earmarks will also enable Congress to regain the small but significant part of its constitutional “power over the purse” that it handed to the Executive Branch. Let’s look at why the ban on them must be relaxed now.
What’s an earmark? Congress has the constitutional responsibility of funding all activities of the national government. Most of that money goes to mandatory programs such as Medicare, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and the like. Some is allocated to the various States for highways or other purposes based on formulas prescribed by Federal law or regulations. Another chunk of money is allocated by law to several hundred grant programs, each of which is administered by a one of the many Federal agencies who solicit and review applications for the funding based on general eligibility criteria set by law or regulation. Prior to 2011, there was another category amounting to about 1 percent of Federal spending that was appropriated by Congress in annual funding bills to specific programs or projects at the request of one or more Representatives or Senators. These were earmarks. Well over half the members of the House were elected after earmarks were banned and likely have no understanding of their importance. It’s time for them to see how important they were to their constituents and to collaboration among Members of Congress.
The elimination of congressional earmarks didn’t save taxpayers one dollar. It simply moved control over every earmarked dollar from Congress to Federal agencies, all of who are part of the Executive Branch and ultimately responsible to the President. If we assume that, in today’s dollars, earmarks would have totaled $50 billion, control of that money was shifted from Congress to the President. For most grants, the solicitation of proposals and the names of recipients is quite transparent. In the end, however, some Federal agency employee who is not accountable to voters determines winners and losers. While there are groups that strongly oppose earmarks, any claim to a basis of fiscal responsibility for their position is specious. I would rather have my share of the $50 billion spent by people who can be held accountable at the ballot box.
Although Congress banned itself from earmarking funds, it didn’t stop the President from doing so. I’m going to come back to this point shortly. What it did halt is the discussions that went on among Members of Congress with less seniority and those who have the most seniority as well as among Republicans and Democrats that helped to build bridges that were also used to help lubricate the rest of the legislative process. Prior to 2011, Congress had taken a beating from the Bridge to Nowhere and other so-called earmark excesses that were the kind of thing that the media just devours. On top of that, lobbyist Jack Abramoff was caught providing campaign contributions in exchange for a Representative securing an earmark. Both served jail time, but Congress understood that the earmark process deserved transparency. By 2010, it required all Members to post information on their websites about the earmark requests they received. In addition, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees published information about each earmark request they had funded. This victory for government transparency was unfortunately short-lived. Congress had already received so much heat about earmarks that it decided to dodge the heat by sending that 1 to 2 percent of spending to the President and his minions to dole out.
The President is not prohibited from earmarking. The prime example of this is the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. Its civil works missions include ports, inland waterways, coastal resilience and environmental restoration, and the budget request the President sends to Congress every February is bursting with earmarks for specific projects. Congress usually increases the total amount proposed for the Corps, but since it has banned itself from earmarking, the ultimate authority to decide where that money goes is left to the President. Even congressional instructions on the factors the administration ought to consider are ignored when the final list of recipients is published.
This isn’t a partisan issue. In fact, earmarks were banned at the behest of President Obama (a Democrat) with the strong support of then-House Speaker John Boehner and the late Senator John McCain (both Republicans). No one in Congress spoke out in opposition.
Congress should never have given away its power to earmark. Here’s why: (1) No Corps project can be started without a congressional authorization for that specific project. (2) Congressional authorizations can’t be given without a study approved by the Chief of Engineers. (3) Studies cannot be undertaken unless specifically authorized by Congress. (4) Finally, neither studies nor project implementation can go on without specific funding from Congress. Applying the earmark ban to the Corps’ thorough and transparent process has allowed various presidents, acting through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to impose their policies and priorities on the Corps with little need to worry about pushback from Congress. [Learn more about OMB’s power to override Congress]
The earmark ban is bad for Congress and bad for the people. You can’t even get to Step 1 of this process without a formal request from a Governor or Mayor who must be willing to pay up to half of the cost of what they are requesting. That appeal used to be made to their elected officials, but that’s a no-no given the fact that no Member of Congress can ask for an authorization to start the study because that would be an earmark, nor can they request funding for a specific study. The state or local official is required to petition the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (an appointee of the President) who submits an annual report to Congress of all requests received and which ones he or she has approved. Requests for study or project funding are not allowed in this process. So, Congress can’t authorize or fund water resources studies, projects and programs unless the President requests it in his budget. This is a big problem for smaller communities that need reliable coastal infrastructure.
It’s time to re-introduce earmarks in a fully transparent manner, and the Corps of Engineers budget is the most appropriate place to start. This coming January, Members of Congress should eliminate from the definition of earmarks the Corps of Engineers civil works program. Any requests members receive for project-specific funding from governors and mayors should be posted on a congressional website and available to the public. The congressional committees responsible for the Corps should also post on that website all requests they receive from members and include in any final legislation they pass whether the request came from the President or a specific Member of Congress. All this information will be fully available to the public and the media before Congress votes, a transparency that we don’t get now from the anonymous OMB budget examiners who set their own rules for choosing winners and losers.
Let’s return power to Congress and power to the People by taking this first step to bring back earmarks. The effort ought to begin with the House, since that was the chamber that started the ban in 2011. The Senate will follow suit promptly, just as it did eight years ago.
What do you think? I’d like to know your comments.