Earmarks can lead to legislating, which can lead to healing
The razor-thin majority in the U.S House and a Senate split right down the middle are exactly the conditions under which legislators should bring back earmarks.
The rules package for the 117th Congress eliminated one of the very few tools the minority party has to affect legislation. By automatically sending motions to recommit back to committee instead of allowing a floor vote on a change prior to final passage, House Democrats have effectively told House Republicans that neither they nor their constituents will have a significant voice in that chamber. This, of course, is what the far left wants. After all, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) encouraged voters in Georgia to elect the two Democratic candidates so that her party in the House wouldn’t have to negotiate with Senate Republicans.
But not every Democrat represents a far-left district. There are tens of millions of Americans who live in congressional districts represented by someone with whom they disagree politically. They are still due representation. There are tens of millions of Americans living in a Republican district. They, too, expect representation.
Earmarks can be a valuable tool to give lawmakers a voice in the legislative process. What’s more, the Constitution specifically gives Congress the power to make spending decisions, not the executive branch. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has already given lawmakers a path forward on this.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team have, no doubt, broken down their caucus into categories of who will push for legislation like the Green New Deal, favored by liberals but which gives heartburn to more moderate members over the price tag and economic shifts it will impose, and those who need to maintain a moderate voting record to remain in office after the next election. A hard left turn such that the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of their party wants could cost Democrats control of the House. With Pelosi’s extremely narrow margin, it might prove wise to try to work with willing Republicans looking for ways to serve their constituents from the minority.
Across the Capitol, the most powerful Democrats may not be Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) or even Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, but Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who take a moderate view of legislation. With a 50-50 split, Schumer and his leadership team will have no choice but to look for cooperation from Republicans.
The healing that our nation needs will not come from impeachment. It will begin with lawmakers working together in a bipartisan manner to propose legislation that solves problems for the American people. We need to get the economy moving. President-elect Joe Biden has expressed a desire for an infrastructure package that will be very costly, but a big-ticket item like this won’t get far without Republican support in the Senate. It would also be surrendering their Constitutional prerogatives on where the money is spent to the executive branch, which, regardless of party, is only too happy to gobble up Congress’ power.
House Democrats can incentivize their own moderates and Republicans to participate in legislation by giving them a real stake in the final passage by allowing earmarks. Lawmakers in either chamber would be hard-pressed to vote against a bill if it includes funds for a project in her or his district and regional partnerships can be strengthened if there’s a real chance for funding projects collaboratively.
Citizens Against Government Waste has done commendable work exposing wasteful federal dollars. But President Tom Schatz’s column excoriating earmarks was unnecessarily harsh in its criticism of the Modernization Committee, which recommended reinstituting earmarks. The important thing about the committee is not that some of its members are appropriators, but rather that every single one of the 97 recommendations it put forth were bipartisan (six Democrats, six Republicans) and unanimous. The committee is a model for how the House can function over the next two years.
The criteria the committee laid out as conditions for earmarks are a good start. The process must be transparent — lawmakers should have no reservation in putting their name on an earmark — and creating a searchable database in addition to posting online and in the Congressional Record gives everyone the opportunity to see what their or any other lawmaker is asking for. The Community-Focused Grant Program (CFGP) gives lawmakers another incentive to form partnerships across the aisle so they may advocate in numbers for their desired projects.
This is not to say that earmarks are some kind of panacea to congressional dysfunction. But the last two years in Congress have been a low point for legislation and bipartisan cooperation. The American people voted for these tight majorities. Lawmakers should listen to that message and look for ways to work together, and through that, we may begin to heal.
Mark Strand is President of the Congressional Institute.
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