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Should We Bring Back Earmarks?

5 years after the Hill supposedly went pork-free, a retiring senator says bring it back

Retiring Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called for a lifting of the "earmark moratorium" on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Retiring Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called for a lifting of the "earmark moratorium" on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Barbara A. Mikulski, who’s retiring this fall as the longest-tenured woman in congressional history, minces few words and suffers fools hardly at all. So there’s little surprise the Democratic senator had a tart bit of advice to impart to her colleagues last week.  

What’s remarkable is that her exhortation was among the most provocative and unscripted thing a lawmaker has said recently that got entirely overlooked.  

“If I could say one thing to all of you: Bring back congressionally directed projects,” Mikulski declared to sporadic applause at the final markup of her 30-year career on the Senate Appropriations Committee, during which she reminisced about some of her prized victories in delivering tens of millions in federal tax dollars to her native Maryland. “I loved the earmarks I could do!”  


Delegation Clout Shifts in Aftermath of Earmark Era


There’s a compelling rationale behind her farewell wish, although it has almost no chance of being granted in this legislative lifetime.  

What Mikulski is referring to is a practice that was semiofficially shelved five years ago, and which has hardened into an informal prohibition at the Capitol that’s not going to be repealed any time soon — at least not openly. Members may no longer publicly secure slices of the federal budget pie for their constituents in the form of government spending on parochial projects.  

Maintaining this “earmark moratorium” has become a rare bipartisan article of faith on the Hill. That’s because Republicans and Democrats alike have concluded that, with public approval of Congress mired in a sustained and deep swoon, steering taxpayer dollars back home was doing them more harm than good.  

Gaining stature among the voters for “bringing home the bacon,” a proactive goal for so many lawmakers for decades, turned into a politically poisonous reputation for craving “pork barrel spending.”  

Greasing the wheels

But that reasoning overlooks the fact that all that pork helped grease the wheels that make Congress run.  

Earmarks never steered more than 3 percent of appropriations, and yet for many years, they almost guaranteed the routine passage, generally with solid bipartisan majorities, of most regular spending bills.  

Initially, lawmakers decided to keep earmarks but increase the sunlight (in the form of new public disclosure rules). They had three reasons: It would allow members wary of the phenomenon to prove their newfound piety. It would permit continued trips to the trough for those concluding their re-election prospects or Capitol power profiles would benefit. And it would not harm the lobbyists who go after special influxes of federal cash for their municipal, medical center and university clients.  

That didn’t work for more than a couple of years, and what’s gone on since then gets derided by good-government types as the worst of all worlds: Billions are effectively getting earmarked every year under a slightly different set of ground rules. The transparency systems are largely ignored.  

Relatively few members, mostly from top seats on the Appropriations panels, are securing tens of millions a throw for big-ticket projects the administration isn’t asking for and Congress hasn’t otherwise authorized — instead of dozens of lawmakers are settling for a million here for an agriculture research grant or a million there for bridge resurfacing.  

And since the bacon grease isn’t being spread very broadly, it’s doing almost nothing to lubricate an appropriations process that’s at record levels of creakiness.  


The First Congress, and the First Earmark?


“The earmarks in the appropriations bills enacted since the initiation of the moratorium raise disturbing questions for the future, particularly because representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle continue to clamor for their revival,” the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste says in the 25th annual edition of its “Pig Book.” The organization identified 123 earmarks worth $5.1 billion insinuated somewhat secretively into the omnibus appropriations law enacted in December for the current fiscal year.  

The numbers are nowhere close to the records set a decade ago: almost 14,000 earmarks directing $29 billion in outlays. Still, they mark the third straight year of steady increases, which the watchdogs label as a worrisome trend, and which plenty of lawmakers — almost always in private — continue to describe as insufficient.

A harmless bad habit

Earmarking may have gone from a legislative best practice to a bad habit for some, lawmakers say, but it’s a bad habit more like gum chewing than cigarette smoking — maybe not pretty to look at, but a stress-reliever that’s in no way harmful to the nation’s fiscal health.  

Defenders of the practice assert, persuasively, that there’s no evidence that funding for the line items increases federal deficits. The grand totals for annual discretionary spending get fixed by Congress every year, and after that, the only question for lawmakers is how to apportion those top line amounts.  

Moreover, these members say, their constitutional power of the purse gives them broad latitude to pursue spending priorities different from the president, on matters both grand and tiny. Senators and House members often know better than agencies what government spending their states and districts not only need but also desire — and, even when that’s not so, it should be the elected officials’ call, not the bureaucrats’.  


Harry Reid Does Love His Earmarks


And, if all those rationales don’t work, there’s an argument about paying a price for more functionality in Congress.  

A fiscally conservative Republican senator might view a measure as too rich, or a big-government House Democrat might view it as too stingy, but they’d both vote “yes” anyway if the payoff was their getting credit for the dredging of the biggest harbor in the state or the construction of new barracks at the local Army post.  

Giving members something specific to vote for, instead of something miasmic to vote against, is a tried-and-true recipe that helped Senate Appropriations move all dozen fiscal 2017 bills to the floor, and at the agreed-upon $1.07 trillion spending cap, by the end of June — the earliest it’s finished its work since 1988, and with a cumulative vote total of 345-15. The companion House committee is just two bills away.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan did not make a earmarking revival part of the plan he unveiled this month for restoring more power to Congress next year no matter who wins the presidency. Neither do next year’s emerging Senate leadership teams look ready to embrace a clearly unpopular cause.  

But Mikulski and all her fellow appropriators have won the right, and maybe even have an obligation, to make their best case that spending on pet projects should be transparently restored to the congressional playbook.

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