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Earmarks are new and improved: Republicans should support them

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
Greg Nash
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) addresses reporters following the House Republican Leadership Election for the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

As Republicans organize for the 118th Congress, the conference is engaged in an important discussion about the power of individual members in the House of Representatives. Some members feel their role in the institution has been diminished by centralized leadership and that they cannot fully perform their jobs as representatives of the people. 

A recent Freedom Caucus memo states, “The leaders of both political parties have consolidated so much power that most members of Congress have no meaningful role in the legislative process beyond voting up or down.”  Into this debate, the subject of directed spending — or as they were known in another era, “earmarks” — has also entered the discussion.

A few in the Republican Conference suggest this recently reformed and improved process ought to be ended, as it further empowers leadership and wastes valuable federal dollars. This could not be further from the truth: In reality, the new and improved directed spending process has actually empowered rank-and-file members to have a greater say in how Congress allocates funds.

For the first time in more than a decade, after enacting bicameral, bipartisan reforms, members of Congress renewed their ability to direct federal discretionary spending toward priorities in their districts and states. This key step restored power to individual members, and Congress as a whole, to effectively control spending under  Article I of the Constitution. The Republican Conference should allow this new and effective spending power to remain.

In the old earmarking era, party leadership and Appropriations Committee members dominated the decision-making process, and thus tended to control and receive the lion’s share of funding. When the earmark moratorium began in 2011, the power for local funding decisions shifted to the executive branch. Instead of Congress using their Article I spending powers, members had to ask an administrative agency to spend on needed projects in their districts.

Under the new directed spending process, members no longer solely rely on executive branch agencies for their local spending needs or defer to leadership on spending priorities in their districts. They can now engage with their constituents and use their local knowledge to make informed and timely funding decisions. This occurs in an equitable bipartisan system, where House members have equal access to submitting a set number of requests.

Unlike what critics suggest, directed spending does not increase spending, nor does it lead to wasteful spending decisions.

Directed spending is not deficit spending. Directed spending falls within the topline spending targets set by the budget committees each year and is just another means by which Congress decides its yearly spending priorities. In FY22, it accounted for less than 1 percent of discretionary spending or less than 0.3 percent of all federal spending. This constitutes only about a third as much directed spending as compared to the period before the earmark moratorium was imposed in 2011.

Under new reforms first recommended by the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, members must provide evidence of community support in their spending requests. Moreover, one key reform bans any funding for private entities. This helps ensure requests are truly needed within the district and has shifted directed spending decisions away from the defense industry and toward local needs like transportation, health care, and education. In fact, according to the General Accountability Office, 77 percent of all directed spending projects for FY22 went to state and local government, other non-profits and educational organizations.

Lastly, the public has never had a clearer view of how Congress makes directed spending decisions. The GAO is tasked with tracking direct spending to ensure funds are spent according to the will of Congress. All proposed spending must be posted on members’ websites while the Appropriations Committee maintains on its website one central repository of requested and approved spending for the entire House. The GAO has also created “Tracking the Funds” which goes further in-depth in analyzing directed spending.

If the House Republican Conference wants to empower individual members and increase the constitutional capacities of Congress, they could do no better than vote to maintain directed spending in their conference rules. It will better serve their constituents, increase member influence in the spending process, and as the Constitution intended, put Congress first and foremost in making spending decisions.

Zachary Courser is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and director of the Policy Lab at Claremont McKenna College. Michael Thorning is the director of Structural Democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Tags Article 1 earmarks Government spending Politics of the United States Republican Conference of the United States House of Representatives US Constitution

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