What’s the story?
- Democrats in both chambers of Congress are moving toward ending the ban on “earmarks” in spending bills, which began 10 years ago. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that the effort “will be bipartisan” in a caucus call reported by Politico, although Republican lawmakers are yet to weigh in on the plan.
- The leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), respectively, are developing a reformed earmark process that will be announced in the weeks to come. They’re expected to rebrand earmarks as “community projects” to make the pork more politically palatable.
What are earmarks?
- Earmarks are provisions in spending bills that are targeted to a specific state, locality, congressional district, or entity to allocate funding in a way that doesn’t rely on a legal or administrative formula or a competitive award process.
- They’re sometimes referred to as “pork barrel legislation” because earmarks allow lawmakers to pour cash into each others’ pet projects to improve their reputations back home in exchange for their support for a broader spending bill.
- At their peak in the mid-2000s, Congress used earmarks frequently, attaching 13,997 of them to legislation in 2005 which were valued at $67 billion according to a 2006 Congressional Research Service report.
Why were earmarks banned?
- Because, frankly, things had gotten out of hand and millions of taxpayer dollars were being funneled to projects with little national significance.
- Perhaps the most infamous earmark is the "Bridge to Nowhere" ― a $398 million project to connect an Alaskan island with a population of 50 people and its airport to the mainland. Members of the state’s delegation fought hard for the bridge, led by Congress’s longest-serving active member, Rep. Don Young (R-AK). Lawmakers ultimately dropped the earmark amid public outcry, which led to the project’s cancellation (an improved ferry now services the community).
- Earmarks also proved an ethical temptation too great for some lawmakers. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) was sentenced to eight years in prison after accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes related to earmarks he attached to military spending legislation that passed through the committees he sat on.
- Starting in 2011, the House and Senate effectively banned earmarks through the committee procedures and party rules that were enforced by leadership ― although it should be noted that there is no formal prohibition on earmarks in either chamber’s rules.
- Earmark advocates say that their restoration would take funding authority away from unelected bureaucrats and give some of it back to Congress, thereby restoring the legislative branch’s constitutional responsibility for budgeting.
- Proponents have also argued that bringing back earmarks could help lawmakers gain the support needed to pass all twelve, individual federal funding bills (which they haven’t been able to do in years) rather than relying on last-minute, massive omnibus spending packages that no one has time to read or continuing resolutions that kick the can down the road.
— Eric Revell
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