It's next to impossible to fix a
problem until you can explain what it is. That may be why lawmakers
are having such a difficult time dealing with budgetary
In at least one way, earmarks are like pornography: There's no
universally accepted definition. Potter Stewart, a justice on the
Supreme Court, famously said of pornography in 1964, "I know it
when I see it."
Well, most Americans know earmarks when they see them. And the
outcry last fall over the outlandish "bridge to nowhere" earmark
shows that most Americans oppose them in principle. But if we are
to eliminate earmarks in practice, lawmakers first must agree on
what an earmark is.
At least 51 pieces of legislation are working their way through
Congress, all aimed at reforming "lobbying" and "earmarking." One
that was recently passed offers a detailed definition of an
earmark: a provision covering "budget authority, contract
authority, loan authority, and other expenditures, and tax
expenditures or other revenue items."
That's a good start, but it misses a key function of earmarks:
Individual lawmakers use them to mandate spending on particular
projects, often to the benefit of influential and supportive
Consider a senator angling to get the federal government to spend
more on highways in his state. Inserting a provision to increase
overall highway funding or change the funding formula to benefit
his state would not constitute earmarking. But if he inserts
language stipulating that $220 funds will be spent on a specific
bridge, that would meet a reasonable definition of an
That kind of earmarking goes on all the time. As a matter of fact,
it went on 6,371 times in last year's federal highway bill, alone
-- often to support pet projects that state officials didn't even
It's probably impossible to eliminate earmarks completely. As long
as lawmakers believe they can gain political support by "bringing
home the bacon," they'll be tempted to do so. But we can at least
improve the integrity of the legislative process and make
earmarking more honest. The key is to make the whole appropriations
process more "transparent," so taxpayers can see what's going
As a start, lobbying reform should force lawmakers to disclose any
family relationships with lobbyists. This is a growing
In 2003, a lengthy investigative report in The Los Angeles Times
revealed an extensive network of lawmakers' sons who were
registered lobbyists and serving clients whose business and
financial interests involved issues that came before their parents'
congressional committees. And just this year a senator acknowledged
allegations that clients of a lobbyist married to a member of his
staff had received 13 earmarks totaling $48.7 million.
Common-sense reform should require full disclosure by lobbyists of
any blood, marital or other formal relationships between them and
members of Congress, senior congressional staff and executive
It's also critical to know where the money is coming from.
Lobbyists should be required to immediately disclose any campaign
contributions from a client or a client's staff. They also should
have to reveal any contributions to charities and other
organizations near and dear to a lawmaker's heart.
In addition, an effective law should mandate immediate disclosure
of which fundraisers have been hosted, co-hosted or otherwise
sponsored by lobbying firms, lobbyists and their political action
committees. Disclosure of contributions for other events involving
legislative and executive branch officials would help as
Senators should be allowed to oppose an earmark by raising a point
of order, which requires 60 votes to overrule. If the point of
order is sustained, the earmark would be dropped from the bill or
its report. This would allow lawmakers to edit out wasteful
earmarks without affecting the few cases (such as Defense
appropriations) where earmarks actually might be helpful.
It's important that voters be able to see everything lawmakers do.
After all, Congress is acting in the name of the people, spending
our money and passing laws that affect all of us. We deserve to
know as much as possible about how those laws came to be.
Any law aimed at limiting lobbying and earmarks must require
extensive reporting and transparency and make the links between
earmarks and campaign contributions more obvious. Those are the
best ways to enhance the integrity of the lawmaking process.
No matter how they're defined, earmarks are probably here to stay
in one form or another. Even slowing their growth will prove a
serious challenge. But we should at least try to make the process
more honest. In the Capitol dome, as in other sanitaria, sunshine
will have a healing effect.
Utt of Falmouth is a senior research fellow at
the Heritage Foundation.