The idea that Congress needs to bring back the era of earmarks to restore some golden age of collegial governing, or to restore its Article I power of the purse, is simply wrong-headed. The last time Congress passed all appropriations bills individually and on time was in 1994, before the explosive growth of earmarks. My organization, Taxpayers for Common Sense, found, named and helped stop the Bridge to Nowhere — that poster child of earmark excess. As the government operates under the fourth continuing resolution since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, reviving earmarking to fix budgeting is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.
To be clear, the problem with earmarks is not that all earmarked projects or programs are wasteful. The problem is the earmark process undermines the integrity of the appropriations process and invites corruption. Worse, earmarked projects receive little scrutiny prior to being funded and even less oversight after the outlay. The public, and our democracy, does not need more reason for cynicism.
Earmarks are about picking winners and losers, both politically and in the marketplace, because they favor political muscle over project merit. Appropriations is a zero-sum game, and earmarks have taken money from priority projects to spread the money to projects that are less critical to safety, less nationally important, and less economically beneficial in order to fund projects in districts or states where lawmakers had more power. Furthermore, earmarks may seem a quick fix to getting more money for a project, but once the member leaves office, earmarking becomes the obstacle. Look at Alaska, which used to get the most earmarked dollars per capita, until Sen. Ted Stevens lost his re-election, and the state got a fraction of its previous haul. Alaska’s needs didn’t change; the state simply lost seniority in the Senate.
The dominance of political power is part of the reason earmarks invite corruption. Political contributors and lobbyists could target senior appropriators to make sure their favored projects are first in line for funding. So critical Corps of Engineers funding for the Olmsted navigation lock on the Ohio River and Herbert Hoover Dike in Florida saw their dollars trimmed in part so powerful lawmakers could steer money into wastewater and water-supply projects — something that isn’t even a Corps’ responsibility.
It is also difficult to support the idea that earmarks are essential for Congress to function, considering their relative recent appearance on the scene. In 1970, the defense appropriations bill contained 12 earmarks. By 1980, the number was 62. In 2006, there were 2,879. Some of our country’s largest and most significant pieces of legislation were passed without earmarks — the Civil Rights Act, the Interstate Highway system and the Tax Reform Act of 1986, to name just a few; more recently, the Affordable Care Act and the tax-cut bill passed at the end of 2017. Earmarks were a harbinger of political dysfunction, not a solution.
In fact, the idea of earmarks possibly bringing back more “friendliness” in Congress overlooks the deep political and ideological divisions in our country and in Congress. Case in point: The recent government shutdown was about a budget deal and immigration, large controversial items that earmarks don’t change.
If President Trump has been looking to make things happen and drain the swamp, as he has so famously said, he should be running away from earmarks. More than one lawmaker has ended up behind bars because of earmarks. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Congress already has a way of determining spending — it’s called appropriations bills. And the only way to break through legislative gridlock is by working hard and writing better bills. There isn’t a substitute for elbow grease, and earmarks are not some sort of magic pixie dust that makes legislation go.