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Bring Back the Earmarks — Really

Congress hasn't worked right since the earmark ban kicked in

The late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a peerless earmarker, admitted that the practice was dead after the tea party wave of 2010. (CQ/Roll Call file photo)
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a peerless earmarker, admitted that the practice was dead after the tea party wave of 2010. (CQ/Roll Call file photo)

It’s become fashionable in the Trump era to say whatever’s on your mind, no matter how politically incorrect it might be. So here’s my contribution to the dialogue — Congress, you need to bring back earmarks. There, I said it, and you’re welcome, because I know you’re thinking the same thing.

Yes, it’s political suicide to say the words. An Economist/YouGov poll from earlier this year showed 63 percent of Americans still oppose earmarks, even though they’ve been prohibited in Congress for the last five years. House Republicans must understand the toxicity of the idea, because in their push to reinstitute some form of earmarking earlier this week, they tried to do it in a closed-door caucus meeting with a secret-ballot vote. That’s not a very hearty defense of the idea, so I’m going to make the case for them right here, in black and white.

The move to ban earmarks began with good reason. In 2005, former Rep. Duke Cunningham pled guilty to taking more than $2 million in bribes, essentially for selling earmarks to a campaign donor. That same year, the Jack Abramoff scandal blew open and eventually led to prison for the former lobbyist, as well former Rep. Bob Ney. Abramoff’s scheme of bribes, government favors, and shared largesse was brazen, but it wasn’t isolated, and most people in Washington knew the system needed to change.

[Commentary: Post-Abramoff: Indian Tribes Still Ponying Up to Influence Lawmakers]

Congress eventually banned earmarks altogether in February 2011 after the tea party wave of 2010. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and an earmarker without peer, admitted “the handwriting is clearly on the wall.” Senate appropriators wouldn’t accept earmark requests, Inouye said, because nobody else would agree to them. Earmarks were dead.

Let’s file the rest of the story under “unintended consequences” because two months after earmarks officially disappeared from the Washington landscape, the recurring nightmare of government shutdown threats began. That was was also the same time that Congress stopped passing individual appropriations bills and started jamming funding for nearly the entire federal government into last-minute omnibus bills, negotiated by two or three congressional leaders in the dark of night, and hastily approved by Congress at the end of the year.

Instead of making the budget process more transparent, it became less transparent. Instead of reducing spending and ending earmarks, the congressional earmark ban simply moved the individual spending decisions away from Congress and put them on the desks of federal agency staffers instead.

[House GOP Postpones Decision on Whether to Restore Limited Earmarks]

But more than anything, eliminating earmarks removed a powerful incentive for individual lawmakers to vote for legislation. It’s not a coincidence that Congress’ cycle of crippling dysfunction began when earmarks went away. Every member of Congress needs a good reason to vote for a bill. Funding for a local project in their district can be a good reason, if the project is necessary, vetted and transparent.

One of the greatest ironies of Congress’ earmark ban is that earmarks still haven’t gone away. The few that remain have simply gone underground.  Citizens Against Government Waste still publishes its annual “Pig Book,” the list of Congress’ pork barrel spending projects. Five years into the earmark ban, the “Pig Book” came out again in 2016, just like it has every year before, because pork barrel spending is alive and well, and for most purposes, hidden from view. In fact, it’s up 88 percent over 2014 levels.

One of the strongest voices to ban earmarks in 2011 was then-House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. So it wasn’t a surprise when Ryan put the breaks on House Republicans’ vote to revive them this week, saying that President-elect Donald Trump had promised to drain the swamp and needed at least some time to dry the place out before the House GOP started earmarking again.

Ryan said the idea would come up for a vote next year. But even if it passes, the proposal would still run into problems in the Republican-controlled Senate. When Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake heard about the House GOP’s idea, he called it “awful.”

“One of the biggest things that lost us the majority in 2006 was the rampant abuse and corruption that came from earmarking, to say nothing of just the wasteful spending,” Flake told Roll Call. Flake added that he’ll fight to keep the ban.

If earmarks can ever make a comeback, they have to be transparent, starting with the vote to approve them. A secret-ballot vote won’t get the job done. And if they’re revived, the earmarking process itself has to be transparent, too. Don’t make Sen. John McCain roll out the “Pig Book” on the Senate floor every year. Congress should publish every earmark request and approval on its own, with a justification for every project.

The strongest argument for earmarks, in general, is clear — the legislative process as we knew it hasn’t worked without them. If Congress can find a way to bring them back, without bringing back the corruption they used to invite, they’ll get more than a bridge repaired in their districts. They’ll get a Congress that works again.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.  

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