Democrats took the first baby steps in implementing the structural changes necessary to restore a functioning legislative branch after a decade of Republican-led obstruction and sclerosis. According to Punchbowl News, the Democratic chairs of the appropriations committees in the House and the Senate will reinstate the practice of earmarks. Earmarks are basically spending programs requested by a member for their particular state or congressional district. Republicans ended the practice in 2011 after rampant abuse of the system created scandals such as the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” and the corruption accusations against Republican Duke Cunningham and Democrat John Murtha for spending directed to defense contractors.
Democrats’ new plan for earmarks hopes to avoid such abuses by restoring the restrictions they put on earmarks back in 2007. Those limitations include ensuring that none of the money can be directed to an entity to which the member has financial ties. In addition, there can be no earmarks directed to for-profit companies, only toward state and local governments and non-profits fulfilling a quasi-governmental function. Democrats also promise transparency, disclosing which member asked for the earmark and the entity to which it is going.
While getting rid of earmarks might have seen like a “good government” decision at the time, it had two real drawbacks. First, all it essentially did was to abdicate Congress’ power to control spending and instead turn that over to the executive branch and the unelected bureaucrats in the various federal agencies where the spending was directed. Those unelected bureaucrats were then lobbied, usually secretly, by members of Congress to spend the money in their states or districts. Under Trump especially, these new bureaucratic powers just became another vehicle for corruption as well. In addition, both Democratic and Republican leadership lost both a carrot and a stick to build support for bills not only within their own party but also perhaps by offering a sweetener to a member of the opposition. As John Boehner said, “Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats”. And without anything to offer the opposition, annual spending bills became a polarized affair that usually ended up with some grand bargain between the House and Senate leaders that no member is able to even read before they are forced to vote on it.
Democrats hope that, at least in a small way, earmarks can bring back some degree of bipartisan support for spending bills. With earmarks in place, perhaps members from different parties can join together to fund regional projects. In addition, the revival of earmarks restores power to the head of the appropriations committees in both houses of Congress, providing at least some counterweight to the majority leaders, who have increasingly usurped the power of committee chairs.
Will the return of earmarks mean a return to more boondoggles of waste like the bridge to nowhere? Perhaps, but the current system probably creates even more wasteful spending because unnecessary projects get funded by agencies that don’t really understand, and are not directly responsive to, the communities where they occur. In addition, in the past, earmarks have made up just 1% of the federal budget. Moreover, earmarks don’t add to the spending total. That figure is agreed upon before the earmark process even begins.
As the New York Times notes, “Nothing greases the gears of government quite like pork. A lawmaker may not care for a larger bill per se, but the ability to slip in a little something for the voters back home can be a compelling motivator”. And for those of us who believe that getting rid of the filibuster is essential to restoring our democracy, earmarks might provide just the inducement that Manchin and Sinema need.