Earmarks distract from other issues.
Members don’t want to do the hard work of articulating standards, setting criteria, or doing the follow-up to ensure the executive agency is implementing that process correctly and fairly.
Amidst all the commotion around a potential government shutdown this week, Taxpayers for Common Sense staff were on the third floor of the Capitol building testifying before the House Rules Committee about the possible return of earmarks. Yes, while House and Senate leaders haggled over spending levels for the military, immigration, and just keeping the government’s lights on, a short walk away dozens of lawmakers spent more than nine hours over two days discussing efforts to revive the special interest spending provisions that lawmakers used to tuck into spending bills by the billions of dollars.
Considering we’ve databased tens of thousands of earmarks over the years, the invitation was not surprising. But the timing was. First off, President Trump just last week commented that maybe we should go back to earmarks. Second, as Rules Committee Ranking Member Slaughter pointed out – as a pivotal committee for moving legislation, all eyes were looking at Rules to take up bills to actually avoid a shutdown. Spending seven hours waxing poetic about the glory days of earmarks past, seems not terribly pressing. Finally, there’s been a Congressionally imposed moratorium on earmarks since 2011. Why this week at this exact time is the moment to delve into earmarking, escapes us. But, as we’ve said before, Congress should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, so we obliged.
The issues were intertwined. A number of lawmakers point to reviving earmarks as key to Washington successfully carrying out its constitutional duty to pass spending bills and tackle big policy issues. But the problem is appropriations and oversight, making hard decisions, and setting priorities. Bringing earmarks back doesn’t solve those problems. If anything, our experience is that earmarks increased the number of lobbyist and amount of campaign cash, but didn’t get much positive change in the legislative progress. In fact, since the establishment of modern congressional budget policy the spending bills to fund government were finished on time (before the October 1st start of the fiscal year) four times since 1974. The last time they were done individually and on time (regular order) was 1994. Besides the fact that this indicates more dysfunctional problems with the system, this also indicates that earmarks, which exploded from 3,000 in 1996 to more than 15,000 in 2005 aren’t the solution. They are not some pixie dust magic or legislative lubricant WD-40 to squeeze legislation through the Capitol.
Since the moratorium went into effect, the previously heavily earmarked water projects bill for the Corps of Engineers passed twice – in 2014 and 2016. Before that the nominally biennial bill passed in the golden earmark era in 2007 and before that 2000. Lawmakers also passed an earmark free highway bill in 2015. They’ve tackled rising deficits through the Budget Control Act, rejiggered these spending caps in two subsequent agreements, and in fact avoided government shutdowns since Oct 2013. The previously entirely earmarked miscellaneous tariff bill sailed through the House earlier this week 402-0 and lacked a single earmark.
The day before we testified was a member’s day at the Rules Committee where every lawmaker can come up and say their piece. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) again defended the Bridge to Nowhere, first uncovered and named by Taxpayers for Common Sense in 2003, and other lawmakers argued for earmarks so they can exercise the power of purse, represent their constituents, and take power back from the nameless, faceless, bureaucrats that fill the swamp.
One of the loudest voices in this vein was Rep. Rooney (R-FL) who argued for water project earmarks. Though his later comments went far afield into other types of projects he highlighted, he also mentioned projects like the Herbert Hoover dike in Florida. We agree that this is a critical project to reduce risk of flooding from a federal flood control project. So do those vilified bureaucrats. That’s why this project has been in the Presidential Budget Request every year and received more than $500 million in construction funding since the moratorium went into effect. In fact the pencil pushers at the Army Corps of Engineers ended up following Congress’ direction and directing $18 billion more than the president requested in 2017. But the earmark reality is that in the last year of earmarks (FY2010) Congress cut this project by $7 million (and cut funding from dozens of others) from the president’s request in order to earmark 191 projects that were not a high enough priority to make it into the construction budget.
Our motto has been “making government work” – that’s what we want to achieve. A government that works for its citizens, that functions, that does its fundamental duties of providing funding – at whatever level – for government. But one that doesn’t resort to tricks or bribes to accomplish the feat.