Pork is dead. Long live pork!
Congressional earmarks might technically be extinct, but lawmakers are still finding ways to gently steer money to their pet programs in the massive spending packages moving through Congress.
While lawmakers say money to fight COVID-19 is the overarching priority in spending debates, Congress isn’t above leveraging the coronavirus pandemic to secure extra money for their home districts or other special interests.
“They are going to, in many cases, take every opportunity to shove the cash to their favorite interests,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “In many cases, lawmakers know where the earmarks would have been, and they’ve plussed-up certain accounts or certain projects that would then likely benefit the special interests that are in their district or are supporting them.”
Earmarks are line items tucked into bills to carve out spending for projects, such as building roads or military weapons systems, at the insistence of a particular lawmaker or two.
Republicans ended earmarking after they won control of the House in the 2010 elections. Senate Republicans voted for a permanent ban last year.
Still, some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been itching to restart earmarking, though the issue is so politically fraught that advocates insist on using the formal label of “congressionally directed spending.”
House Democrats’ $66 billion spending bill for the State Department and foreign programs in 2021 includes $19.7 million for the East-West Center in Honolulu, a provision championed for years by Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The center, established in 1960, is a nonprofit research and educational facility with a focus on diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
For 2021, funding for the center got a $3 million boost in its allotment of $16.7 million in recent years.
The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit educational group, got $20 million in the 2021 bill, a $1 million increase from 2020.
“It’s always outrageous, but this is a little more outrageous than usual because they did not do anything to try to not fund even the most obvious examples of wasteful earmarks. They increased them, in fact,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste and no relation to the senator.
Rep. Nita Lowey, the retiring chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, typically spearheads the State-Foreign Operations spending bill.
A spokesman for Ms. Lowey, New York Democrat, said the funding was appropriate because the East-West Center and the Asia Foundation are small but significant contributors to American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Reflecting strong bipartisan and bicameral support for these entities, the House Appropriations Committee rejected the Trump administration’s shortsighted proposal to eliminate them and instead provided modest increases to support their work,” spokesman Evan Hollander said.
The boosts aren’t even a rounding error in the context of a $1.3 trillion discretionary spending cap in 2021.
The House measure also won’t become law. Senate appropriators haven’t advanced any of the House’s 2021 spending bills through committee, and Congress is speeding toward another stopgap measure to fund the government beyond Sept. 30.
But Citizens Against Government Waste’s Mr. Schatz and other budget hawks say that when Congress pushes for money for programs, those new baselines become tricky to roll back.
“When you start spending money, as you know, you tend to keep spending it,” Mr. Schatz said.
In May, the Congressional Research Service identified the idea of “soft” earmarks for transportation projects that are not line items but can still bear the fingerprints of particular members.
Ms. Lowey and top Democrats such as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland advocated for a return to earmarking after their party took control of the House in 2018.
The Senate Republicans’ ban has shelved those plans and rendered them moot for the time being.
Critics of earmarks point to projects like the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a bridge to an Alaskan island with a permanent population of 50.
Former Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, spent more than seven years in prison starting in 2006 for essentially selling earmarks.
At the height of their use, earmarks accounted for about 3% of total discretionary spending.
Mr. Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste said the 81 congressional appropriators, representing 15% of Congress, managed to secure 51% of the total number of earmarks and about 60% of their dollar value from 2008 to 2010.
David Chipman, a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said ballistics matching machines used to go to places that didn’t need them. It all depended on which members were running the show at the time.
Mr. Chipman said earmarks can be fine if they are legitimate and well-managed, but he added that it’s a “slippery slope.”
“If you told me that ‘Hey, Congress finally decided that tracing firearms and proper registration of Class III machine guns was a priority and we wanted to make sure that ATF had a facility in West Virginia where they weren’t storing records in CONEX boxes and there was an earmark for that,’ I’m not going to lay over the tracks and say, ‘Oh, that’s dirty business,’” said Mr. Chipman, now an adviser to former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ gun control group.
“Earmarks are fine as long as they’re legitimate, right. But who determines that?” he said. “Some people will do it the right way, and others will take advantage of it.”
Agencies now often find blanket increases in various accounts, rather than explicit line items, that lobbyists can carve up and steer where they want the money to go, Mr. Ellis said.
“It’s not the same as earmarking was — I want to be clear about that — and it doesn’t necessarily violate the moratorium,” he said. “It may violate the spirit, but they are trying to make sure that the money is there [so] that their favorite interests can compete for it.”