Once reviled as a public evil and evidence of Washington’s corruption, the earmark — targeted spending for a specific project or group directed by an individual member of Congress and doled out by House and Senate appropriators — may be making a return.
And it’s good news, said U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who serves as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“We’re very excited about it. It’s a lot different than it was in the past,” said Lawrence, whose election to Congress in 2014 came a few years after the House and Senate banned earmarks in the wake of scandals and complaints. She believes new rules will result in a much more transparent system and also encourage bipartisan compromise missing in recent years.
It could also result in a stream of funding for some local projects. In Lawrence’s district alone, she’s able to rattle off three — a new community youth center in Pontiac, rebuilding the deteriorating sea wall in Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Shores and addressing storm drains that can’t handle flooding in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood — that might well be worthy of inclusion.
Every member of the Democratic-led House is being asked to provide a list of such projects this month.
“I know for a fact there’s not a lot that brings us together but every member wants to take home money to their district. We all want to say, ‘I work hard for you and I built that community center,’ ” she said. And if support for a project can help deliver a vote on another piece of legislation and possibly produce comity, she said, so be it.
Earmarks have been misused in the past
The problem before earmarks were suspended in 2011 was the process was abused, especially by those in charge of it — who were so powerful they became known as cardinals, after the Catholic college at the Vatican that elects the pope — and others with influence to move funding in ways that sometimes personally benefited them.
Typically, more senior members of Congress, or those facing tough election fights, were rewarded, and, at times, members who challenged specific earmarks as unworthy or wasteful saw their own requests turned back.
The examples are stark: Former U.S. Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., went to prison for steering appropriations to a defense contractor and accepting bribes, including yacht club fees and a Rolls-Royce. And the FBI opened an investigation into whether the late Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., who chaired the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Defense, and associates were using earmarks to move money to clients of a consulting firm with ties to him.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, noted in its 2008 report that “earmarks for large campaign contributors are commonplace and many members have traded legislative assistance for personal favors.” Meanwhile, a project supported by powerful legislators in Alaska, which called for a $398-million “Bridge to Nowhere” to be built connecting a small city with a regional airport and replace a ferry, became a punchline on talk shows and a much-used example of how pork-barrel spending had gone awry.
Funding has gone to worthy programs as well
For all of that, however, legislative earmarks also funded a lot of projects arguably worthy of the help, such as reconstructing taxiways at Metro Detroit Airport, building an Army research lab in Warren or helping fund a cancer center in Detroit. And that’s a paltry list of examples
Former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., used his sway to help secure funding to preserve part of old Tiger Stadium, create the downtown Riverwalk and pay for a new roof at the Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance.
Lawrence, who has been talking to community leaders about what projects they might want funded, said the key to making it work this time is to do it in such a way as to try to ensure there is no corruption.
“We wanted to make sure we do this without any scandal,” she said, “without any breach of trust to the people.”
New plan calls for transparency
Under the plan for what is being called Community Project Funding by House Appropriations Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., each member of Congress will be able to submit 10 funding requests. But they will have to do so publicly, posting those requests on their office websites and certifying that neither they nor their immediate families have any financial interest in the project.
The Appropriations Committee will post all of the projects as well.
The plan also requires that members provide evidence of community support for the funding, which, unlike in the past, may only go to nonprofit groups or governmental agencies.
The total amount to be dedicated would be no more than 1% of the discretionary spending determined by Congress, which doesn’t include mandatory programs such as Medicare and Social Security whose funding is set by statute. That would still set aside some $15 billion for earmarks. The new rules also call for the Government Accountability Office to audit a sample of projects each year to make sure they were on the up-and-up.
So far, the proposal appears to be progressing. Members of the House Republican Caucus voted 102-84 in March to agree to restoring earmarks to the appropriations process. And while it’s unclear whether the Senate plans to go along, the Democratic chairman of that chamber’s Appropriations Committee, Pat Leahy of Vermont, and top Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, are both in favor.
If the effort stalls in the Senate, it’s unclear what would happen to the earmark proposal — though it would take both chambers, ultimately, to pass any appropriations bill with or without earmarks.
Some concerns remain about the process
Still, there are worries that, even with the changes, the return of earmarks by any other name will result in taxpayer money being wasted and more powerful members of key committees steering funding to their pet projects and concerns.
Even with the new rules, for instance, it’s unlikely any member will get all 10 of his or her requests, so there will be some form of culling. There’s nothing saying a significant request from one member won’t trump another’s for whatever reason. As with any government spending, there will always be complaints of money being sent to special interests or questions about the decisions being made by committee chairs and party leaders.
There is an argument to be made that earmarks were a symbol of more establishment politics of a previous era that resulted in the partisan acrimony and grassroots outrage in the nation today. If so, their return could potentially erode, not restore, trust in government.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group, chastised Democrats for “bringing back corrupt, costly and inequitable earmarks,” adding that “earmarking — by design — will never be transparent and will always be a form of legalized bribery.”
At another watchdog group in the nation’s capital, Taxpayers for Common Sense, President Steve Ellis was less critical, saying Democrats have tried to address many of the organization’s concerns. In the past, the group spent months combing records to put together databases of the earmarks to determine who was getting what.
Earmarks have run rampant in the past
Ellis said even if Congress puts it “out of the earmark databasing business” with its commitment to transparency, there are still concerns regarding whose earmarks are approved and why and just how rigorous Congress is in determining where the money ends up.
In the past, he noted, a lot of defense earmarks went to sub-agencies in the Pentagon, for instance, for a specific item or program without any disclosure that it would ultimately wind up benefiting a specific for-profit company in a congressman’s district.
If in the next budget, an item similar to those in the past was included, it’s unclear whether it would run afoul of the new rules or not — though presumably the information about who would benefit would be included in the member’s request. But that will depend on how rigorously the Appropriations Committee polices its rules.
Ellis also said the problem with earmarks is that they tend to spin out of control: In the 1980s, they numbered less than 200 in some years. By 1994, there were more than 4,000. By 2005, they had jumped to nearly 16,000 individual items.
“The devil is always going to be in the details,” Ellis said. “In year one, in year two, people will probably be very diligent (about adhering to the rules) … but money finds a way. We’ll have to see exactly how this plays out.”
Funding has followed political considerations even without earmarks
What’s also clear, however, is that turning over all decisions about funding local projects to the president’s administration — which is effectively what happened when earmarks were banned — didn’t necessarily mean that every project was being judged solely on its merits either. For better or worse, President Donald Trump effectively guaranteed that funding would be there for a long-sought navigation lock at Sault Ste. Marie to be built at a rally in Grand Rapids in 2019, knowing Michigan would be key to his reelection hopes.
Legislators have long maintained that they know better than any administration what should and shouldn’t be funded in their districts. It’s a point Ellis doesn’t argue but he suggests that doling out earmarks isn’t really Congress exerting oversight. It’s simply making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie rather than making hard decisions about what gets funded and what does not.
He noted that former House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., once carped that earmarks were a “nuisance” that had turned the appropriations process into “an ATM machine.“
“We’ve always argued we wanted to see Congress exert a lot more authority over the executive (branch)” regarding spending, Ellis said. “Earmarks were a distraction.”
Lawrence said if lawmakers can keep out the corruption and gain a bit of bipartisanship through horse-trading support for projects, it will have been worth the effort.
“We don’t want a waste of taxpayer dollars. That has been our No. 1 discussion,” she said. “We are super-sensitive that this come across as a win … and not a money grab.”