How to reinstate earmarks responsibly without political considerations
© Greg Nash

Among the first actions taken by Republicans when they retook the U.S. House in 2010 was to institute a ban on earmarks. This was never put through as a rule of the House, but rather a Republican House Conference rule. The Democratic majority in the Senate followed suit as did the two minority parties, creating the de facto ban on congressionally directed spending.

This was a mistake and it’s time to reinstate earmarks. By not directing federal funds to their districts, members of Congress are shirking one of the primary responsibilities given to them by the Constitution – the power of the purse. Congress is a legislative body. It is also the branch of government closest to the people and therefore should be the most familiar with funding needs.

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Readers of the Federalist Papers know that “it is particularly essential that the branch of [government] under consideration [the House] should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.” As the federal representatives closest to the people whom they represent, members of the House are best positioned as the ultimate authorities to know how federal dollars will be most useful and beneficial in their districts.

In other words, it’s member’s job to know their district better than the bureaucrats in the executive branch.

Earmarks are also an important way to restore civility in Congress, since it allows legislators in the minority party to participate in the legislative process. When members of the minority are excluded from the amendment process, their constituents’ most urgent priorities go unrepresented. Opening up the legislative process so that all members can direct spending in their own districts and accomplish important policy goals gives both the majority and minority incentives to pass authorization and appropriation bills with healthy bipartisan margins.

Bringing back earmarks could be as simple as lifting the Republican Conference or, if the Democrats win the House, changing their Caucus rule. While we will surely hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from some party extremists, it has become pretty clear that a majority of both conferences would like to restore earmarks.

Earmarks fell into disrepute at the same time the budget process broke down. Congress stopped the authorization of most non-defense spending, where earmarks were generally included. As a result, individual members became ad hoc authorizers directly attaching spending requests to appropriation bills. Some earmarks were added into the bills, but many were only referred to in report language. The process broke down to a free-for-all with every legislator for him- or herself.

Restoring earmarks can be a major incentive to restore the broken authorization and budget processes. Constituents’ clearly defined priorities would be met and members would have political incentives to pass bills.

The proper way to reinstate earmarks that eliminates partisan motives would be to adhere to the following guidelines:

  1. Make member-directed spending proposals an explicit part of authorization bills. This is the most transparent and legitimate way to prevent corruption and backroom deals. If constituents disagree with the member’s choices, that member will most likely find him- or herself voted out of office. No more hiding behind bureaucrats’ skirts.
  2. Require that earmarks carry the force of law so that the administration cannot arbitrarily override them. President George W. Bush signed an executive order directing agencies to ignore earmarks that were not codified into law. That was a good step on earmark reform and it would be good to see the current administration uphold this order at the same time Congress is enacting its own reforms.
  3. There must be transparency and public disclosure. Gone are the days when lawmakers can shift money around behind closed doors. If a member seeks an earmark, she or he should put that request into the Congressional Record or submit a publicly disclosed written request to the appropriate committee and request it along with detailed information about why the money is needed and how it will used. If a member is not willing to publicly stand behind an earmark, that request should not pass.

Earmarks can be a valuable budgeting tool but more importantly, they are a constitutional responsibility of each members of Congress. Congress is given the power to authorize and appropriate money. The executive branch cannot spend one penny unless Congress allows it. As is obvious to anyone paying attention, when every decision in Congress is made along partisan fault lines the entire system breaks down. For junior lawmakers and those in the minority, earmarks can give them accomplishments to take back home, which is in the interest of leadership for both parties, regardless of who holds the gavel.

There are significant reforms needed regarding how Congress does its work. Restoring the ability of members of Congress to direct spending in their own districts is an important step toward incentivizing budget reform and making Congress less polarized.

Mark Strand is president of the Congressional Institute.