Why congressional leadership might not be excited about the prospect of earmarks returning
© Greg Nash

Last month, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that resembled an old-fashioned Christmas Tree bill – there was something in it for everyone. While the bill did not necessarily include what we would normally call earmarks, spending directed at individual congressional districts, it passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. However, critics like Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMcConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal Senate approves 4B spending bill Grassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt MORE (R-Neb.) who called it a “spending kegger” were quick to point out what they saw as excessive spending.

The case of the omnibus bill illuminates the fault lines of the debate over congressional earmarks, which are back in the news again this year. On the one hand are deficit hawks like Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Coulter mocks Kavanaugh accuser: She'll only testify 'from a ski lift' Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it MORE (R-Ariz.) and more recently Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEx-college classmate accuses Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Reexamining presidential power over national monuments MORE (R-Utah) who called them “the original Swamp Thing”. These opponents and others successfully outlawed earmarks in 2011.

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Still others are looking to bring earmarks back. President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE suggested in January that they might ease the flow of legislation through Congress by engendering an institution-wide logroll. That is, members will trade votes on legislation for earmarks that they can send back home. Another argument is that Congress exercises the power of the purse, and it may be time, as Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Overnight Health Care: House GOP blocks Trump-backed drug pricing provision | Maryland sues to protect ObamaCare | Insurers offer help to hurricane-impacted areas House GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill MORE (R-Okla.) says, that members “reclaim these powers back to Congress”.

With this in mind, we feel the time is right to revisit how earmarks worked and their impact on Congress. Many blamed our budget woes on earmarks in appropriations bills when in reality they only rarely represented even 1 percent of total budget outlays. Moreover we found essentially no correlation between the amount of money going towards earmarks and the budget deficit.

Despite perceptions that the party leaders had a bucket of earmarks to dole out as rewards, our research says this is largely not the case. We found the process in the House was highly routinized rather than freewheeling. After the committee decided on spending levels, the earmark pot was divided with 60 percent going to the majority party and the remaining 40 percent to the minority side. To request an earmark in the House of Representatives, rank-and-file members submitted forms to Appropriations subcommittee chairs and ranking members, who then decided where the money would be spent. It also does not seem to be the case that earmarks are primarily used to shore up the electorally vulnerable. As it turns out, those same chairs and ranking members keep an extra share of earmarks for themselves.

Looking at the electoral returns to earmarks in the Senate, we found liberals and moderates as well as those who were a poor ideological match for their state, were rewarded more at the polls. Likewise small state senators also seemed to benefit disproportionately. Conservatives and Republicans got far less electoral traction out of traditional earmarks. This tracks with research on the House that shows when it comes to distributive politics the two parties and associated ideological factions seek out and obtain different kinds of directed federal spending. If the Democrats are able to regain control of the House after the upcoming midterm elections, this might amplify the push for a return to earmarking.

There are other reasons more internal to Congress why some members might want to bring back earmarks. After the ban was instituted, Appropriations committee members lost the currency they could use to build up a base of power outside the formal leadership apparatus like the Speakership and other elected positions. Since 2011, Congress has increasingly legislated in the dark and shut out all but a few members while drafting bills.

Bringing back earmarks is in no way a panacea to congressional ills. However, if appropriators take the lead in directing the allocation rather than formal party leaders, this might draw some power back from what has become an extremely centralized leadership and lawmaking structure. Even then, a greater degree of decentralization would require rank-and-file members to demand more influence in the legislative process.

Michael H. Crespin is the Director, and Charles J. Finocchiaro is the Associate Director, of the Carl Albert Congressional Research & Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. Their joint research focuses on congressional earmarks, parties and elections. You can follow them on Twitter @MikeCrespin and @cjfinocchiaro.