As Congress prepares to send a tax cut gift to every American before Christmas, House Republicans appear to be getting ready to stuff a huge lump of coal in their stockings by holding a clandestine, closed-door, unrecorded vote to restore earmarks. There would be no hearings, transparency or accountability.
Perhaps the three co-conspirators to revive earmarks, Reps. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonNASA's Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System Texas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program MORE (R-Texas), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE (R-Ala.) and Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyRepublican rips GOP lawmakers for voting by proxy from CPAC House Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides MORE (R-Fla.), think that they can sneak this all through when the spotlight will be on tax reform over the next several weeks, and while everyone heads out to dozens of holiday parties around the nation’s capital. But House Republicans should be on notice that reviving earmarks from the grave would be a nightmare through the 2018 elections. The practice is not only political poison, it is also corruptive, unfair and costly.
It would be ironic if the body of Congress that led the way in making a wise policy and political decision to place a moratorium on earmarks reversed course in a manner that will indubitably lead to the second demise of the Republican majority in 12 years, especially after Senate Republicans unanimously agreed to extend the moratorium for the 115th Congress in January.
More than two-thirds of House Republicans did not personally witness how the rampant corruption surrounding the earmark process not only helped cost them the majority in 2006, it also led to the conviction and incarceration of Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), along with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional staff, and other lobbyists. Some members are being lured by promises that the earmark process is “fair” and that projects in their districts will be duly considered and funded. Such comments are belied by the history of earmarks, under which the distribution of funds has always been grossly disproportionate.
In the 111th Congress, when the names of members who requested earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, 61 percent of the earmarks and 51 percent of the money went to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In other words, 81 appropriators (50 in the House and 31 in the Senate), who constituted 15 percent of the entire Congress, purloined more than half of the earmarks. As Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainKelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities Sinema, Manchin curb Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ariz.) said about members of Congress who wanted to bring back earmarks in 2014, “The problem with all their arguments is the more powerful you are, the more likely you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”
The full cost of earmarks goes far beyond the individual projects, which average a few million dollars outside of defense earmarks. Since 1991, according to Citizens Against Government Waste’s Congressional Pig Book, there have been 110,605 earmarks costing taxpayers $329.8 billion. The claim that they are necessary to help pass bills has been destroyed by the passage in the House of all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2018. Rather than trading a few million dollars in earmarks for votes in favor of hundreds of billions of dollars in spending bills, the earmark moratorium appears to be restraining the size of the appropriations bills.
Nonetheless, the earmark revival attempt appears to be timed more closely with the upcoming consideration of a new infrastructure bill, despite the lurid history of the $24 billion in earmarks in the 2005 highway bill, including the infamous $223 million Gravina Island “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. If members of Congress do not like how federal funds are being spent, they can change the authorizing statutes to spend it any way they wish.
Earmarks are a lazy, unfair and corrupt way to circumvent that process, and they have been roundly excoriated by the conservative movement upon which Republicans depend for their political lives. Any attempt to “amend” the earmark moratorium should be rejected so that everyone can sleep soundly and avoid nightmares before, during and after Christmas.
Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.