Earmarks are inequitable, corrupt, and costly — they should not be brought back

At the end of every Congress since the earmark moratorium was established in 2010, representatives and senators have discussed restoring the practice. These efforts have always fallen short, including during the 116th Congress, when House Democrats dropped the idea after Senate Republicans agreed to a ban on earmarks. Earmark proponents are again trying to restore them in the 117th Congress.

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which met only during 2020, created six criteria for earmarks that they suggested should be permanently added to House rules, including a searchable database, and posting earmarks on committee websites, in bill reports, and in the Congressional Record. The new scheme would echo the system implemented between fiscal years (FY) 2008-2010, when legislator’s names were attached to earmarks in the appropriations bills, but which was devoid of transparency relating to requests and had no limits on entities receiving earmarks. The committee also proposed the establishment of a competitive Community-Focused Grant Program (CFGP) to consider projects that begin at the local level with community support.

It was not surprising that the committee called for the restoration of earmarks: half of its 12 members come from the House Appropriations Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the co-chairs are both on the Appropriations Committee.

As the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained regarding those who called for a return to earmarks in 2014: “The problem with all their arguments is: the more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.” Proving his point, between fiscal years 2008-2010, the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, comprising 15 percent of the 535 members of Congress, received 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money. Since the first “Congressional Pig Book” was released in 1991, legislators have issued 111,114 earmarks costing $375.7 billion.

The Committee on Modernization’s proposal to limit earmarks to “community-focused” programs is prima face absurd. Almost every federal expenditure “helps” a community, from building weapons systems at the Department of Defense to the hundreds of agencies and programs that include community, development, economic, or similar words in its title.

In its first report on duplicative and overlapping federal programs, issued in March 2011, the Government Accountability Office found 80 economic development programs in four agencies that overlapped with at least another program. The website federalgrantswire.com lists 99 community development programs. The CFGP would add to that list.

Considering projects that start at the local level is another meaningless “limitation” on earmarks since it describes the normal system of requesting money from competitive federal grant programs. The use of earmarks usurps and perverts that process.

In September 2007, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General issued a report that found 99 percent, or 7,724 projects out of 7,760 earmarked in FY 2006 worth $8.05 billion within three DOT agencies “either were not subject to the agencies’ review and selection processes or bypassed the states’ normal planning and programming processes.”

Earmarks contain other hidden costs. A 2009 analysis of earmarks for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) found that the agency included administrative costs only for the $1.7 billion in its budget request to Congress. There was no money for staff or administer the $535 million in earmarks, equal to a 31 percent increase in spending for the ONR. The report noted that some of the earmarks “are hopelessly incompatible with Navy priorities.”   

“Community-focused” earmarks in the past have included $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Coralville, Iowa; $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, N.C.; and $273,000 to study goth culture in Blue Springs, Mo. The list of such earmarks, drawn from Citizens Against Government Waste’s earmark database, includes 1,378 earmarks for museums costing $1.3 billion; 399 earmarks for theaters costing $861 million; 97 earmarks for cultural centers costing $70 million; 32 earmarks for opera houses costing $9.5 million; and 30 earmarks for mansions costing $8.6 million. Incoming House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) obtained a $150,000 in FY 2010 for the Sterling Opera House in Derby, Conn.; $110,000 of that amount had to be returned to the federal government after it was improperly used by the city.

Few members of Congress remain who served in FY 2006, when the cost of earmarks reached a record $29 billion and members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists began going to jail. New members must understand the substantial inequities, corruption, and costs associated with earmarks.

Instead of voting to restore earmarks, they should get rid of them permanently by supporting legislation like the Earmark Elimination Act, which was first introduced in 2018 with 14 Senate and eight House co-sponsors. And if House Democrats agree to include earmarks in their rules for the 117th Congress, Senate Republicans should once again vote to ban them.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tags Appropriations earmarks John McCain Rosa DeLauro

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