Is it Time to Bring Back the Earmark?

team-MichaelMerolaBy Mike Merola

Voices as varied as St. Paul in Corinth, William Prescott on Bunker Hill, and Axl Rose on stage for most of the 90s have all extolled the virtue of patience. While patience may be helpful when it comes to love and repelling the Red Coats, it is overrated when it comes to waiting for Congress to recover from the anti-earmark mood it has been in since 2010.

Congress has a well-earned reputation for its recent dysfunction, and the lack of earmarks plays a role that is much more significant than most people realize.  Today, new voices as varied as the Huffington Post, the LA Times, Republic 3.0/Washington Monthly, McClatchyDC, the NY Times, US News and World Report, and an array of former and current Members of Congress and staff from both sides of the aisle have editorialized that it is time to bring back the earmark.  As Robert Schlesinger, the Managing Editor of US News pointed out, no one is talking about the gluttonous form of the practice where earmarks were seemingly passed around like hors d’oeuvres at a congressional Christmas party. The idea of “in all things, moderation” is true, and it applies to both earmarks and their reforms. If transparently attributed, and properly limited to a Member’s state or district, earmarks make great sense for a variety of reasons.

First, without them, Congress delegates its Constitutional authority to allocate vast sums of discretionary federal spending to the executive branch, and allows an unelected and unaccountable federal bureaucracy to decide which communities and states actually get those dollars. Earmarks reclaim a portion of that power for Congress, and helps offset the often murky bureaucracy by ensuring that local interests across the country aren’t ignored, or fall victim to a particular administration’s priorities or partisan interests. Further, earmarks help ensure that federal money reaches often-overlooked rural and inner-city communities, and can also help engender a sense of fairness among widely disparate geographies and populations.

Second, taking away earmarks removes nearly all the leverage that party leaders have to make Congress run. Already the two parties show little inclination to pass laws simply because they are in the national interest. Removing earmarks took an important arrow out of the party leaders’ quivers.  Earmarks could help ease the repeated stalemates on Capitol Hill because they give lawmakers a personal stake in passing critical, reasonable legislation that might otherwise fall victim to partisan bickering.

Most important, earmarks help satisfy the need of lawmakers to demonstrate progress to their constituents. The local impact of bringing funding home has true value, much like the benefits of helping local high school students apply to West Point or the other service academies, or helping a constituent who is having trouble getting his or her Social Security benefits. Retail politics incentivizes members to overcome ideology and collaborate on tough issues, with the implication that intransigence will not be rewarded. In other words, earmarks are bargaining chips. They establish the common ground that enables legislative activity.

So how do we fix the system? The first step in reforming this process will be to once and for all agree on what actually constitutes an earmark. Right now different committees, presidential administrations, and external advocacy groups have defined them in a variety of ways, creating uncertainty and further limiting the scope of potential bipartisan agreement. Once we’ve agreed on what we need to regulate, we can use the following suggested ground rules for a new and improved earmarking process – one that promises to the American people to be free of waste, fraud, and abuse:

  1. Disclose Everything. Members of Congress must be willing to return to the practice of providing full background information on their proposed earmarks. This means publicly available and searchable data for each request, including the name and location of the recipient, the purpose of the project, and a certification that the supporting Member and their immediate family members have no pecuniary interest in the endeavor.
  1. Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep. Earmarks should never be used on efforts that would require ongoing and continued support, such as for salaries for individuals whose jobs could be lost at the end of the fiscal year.
  1. Demand Accountability on the Back End. The appropriations process should not end with a bill’s enactment into law; transparency in earmarking also means that the public has a right to know whether a project had the intended positive effect. This requirement could be satisfied through a reporting requirement imposed on the earmark recipient, convening follow-up hearings on earmark use, or creating new subcommittees on investigations and oversight for each legislative committee engaging in earmarking.

In the past decade, we have seen congressional policies on directed spending swing from one extreme to another; from bridges to nowhere to a complete eradication of earmarks that leaves behind elected officials who have little to no reason to work together. The key now is to find a middle ground that incentivizes collaboration and bipartisanship while minimizing any potential for corruption. In employing a new system with clear definitions, complete transparency, minimized potential for controversy, and assured accountability, such a compromise is within reach. Done right, the “bridge to nowhere” could become a bridge to progress on bipartisanship and legislative achievement.


Additional material gathered from the following sources:

April 2014:  Republic 3.0 Editorial by Moira Campion McConaghy, an alumna of both chambers of Congress, having worked in legislative policy positions for members including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Jan 2015:  US News and World Report article by Robert Schlesigner, Managing Editor

Feb 2015:  LA Times Editorial by Martin Frost, who represented a congressional district in Dallas-Fort Worth from 1979 to 2005 andTom Davis, who represented a district in the Virginia suburbs from 1995 to 2008.