Earmarks Return to Congress as Lawmakers Propose $6 Billion in Spending on ‘Community Projects’
Do you support or oppose earmarks?
by Causes | 5.8.21
What’s the story?
- Democratic majorities in Congress have ended the ban on the inclusion of “earmarks” in spending bills that was instituted in 2011, and lawmakers have already proposed more than $6 billion in earmarks for fiscal year 2022.
- Under the new rules, earmarks have been rebranded as “congressionally directed spending.” Lawmakers proposing them have to provide a public explanation of how the funds would be used, and they can’t have personal or familial financial interests that benefit from them. The total amount of spending on earmarked items will be capped at 1% of discretionary spending, and those spending items have to be approved by the congressional appropriations committees before they can reach the floor.
- The decision to reinstate earmarks has caused some angst on both sides of the aisle. While several swing-district Democrats have expressed unease with the optics of reviving earmarks, only one House Democrat ― Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) ― has so far declined to submit earmark requests.
- The House Republican conference was divided in an internal vote that went narrowly in favor of reinstating earmarks, although less than half of House GOP lawmakers have put forward earmark requests so far.
- Here’s a rundown of some of the most notable earmarks proposed so far:
- Three of the five largest earmark proposals were by Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-TX), who requested just under $136 million to replace a flyover bridge at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, $98 million for a utility plant to reduce emissions at DFW Airport, plus another $84 million to consolidate aircraft rescue and fire fighting stations at the airport. Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) also requested $98 million for the utility plant.
- The fourth-largest earmark request was by Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), who requested $89 million for flood control reservoirs in the Omaha metro area.
- Rep. Don Young (R-AK), the longest-serving member of the House and a staunch proponent of earmarks, requested $18.6 million to replace the city of Kodiak’s fire station.
- Numerous lawmakers requested earmarks related to water infrastructure projects in their communities. For example, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) requested $27 million to improve the reliability of the water system at the Fort Drum military base, and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) requested just under $4.8 million to replace water mains with reliability issues in Williamston, Michigan.
- One of the most controversial earmark requests came from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) requested $1 million to relocate and renovate a Planned Parenthood clinic.
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
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / Douglas Rissing)
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