Earmarks Won't Fix Washington's Budgeting Dysfunction

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

Earmarks Won't Fix Washington's Budgeting Dysfunction

Mar 29, 2018 3 min read
Justin Bogie

Former Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs

Justin Bogie was a senior policy analyst in fiscal affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Key Takeaways

Reversing the earmark ban would have a toxic influence on the spending process and be a major step backwards.

Until Congress proves that it can actually stick to a budget, it cannot be trusted with earmarks.

In some cases, earmarks have led to flat out illegal behavior.

“For every complex problem,” H. L. Mencken once wrote, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Case in point: Washington’s budget dysfunction, which President Trump and some lawmakers think can be fixed by bringing back earmarks.

Congress, of course, per Article I of the Constitution, holds the power of the purse. And for as long as appropriations have existed, members have sought to use that power to send earmarked funding for pet projects back to their home states and districts.

A moratorium was placed on these directed spending provisions in 2011 — and with good reason. Reversing the earmark ban would have a toxic influence on the spending process and be a major step backwards.

One argument that proponents of restoring earmarks make is that the ban has ceded too much of Congress’s Article I power to the executive branch. In other words, by Congress no longer being able to specifically direct where funds are going, that power is transferred to bureaucrats within the executive branch — or so earmark proponents claim.

In reality, Congress ceded its own power by failing to follow the budget process and falling into a perpetual cycle of funding by crisis. The proper and effective way for Congress to use its Article I powers would be to follow regular order, including passing budgets and appropriations bills as prescribed by law and reauthorizing agencies and programs on a regular schedule.

If Congress were serious about seizing the power of the purse, they would first tackle unauthorized and expiring appropriations. These “zombie appropriations” live on well past their authorizations and have steadily increased to more than $700 billion. By following regular order, Congress can seize multiple opportunities each year to deeply examine and debate, in full transparency, the priorities for which it provides funding. 

Furthermore, until Congress proves that it can actually stick to a budget, it cannot be trusted with earmarks. In the past seven years, Congress has only passed three conferenced budget resolutions. For the past six years, the Budget Control Act (BCA) has set discretionary spending levels and yet Congress has still struggled to find agreement on appropriations bills and instead voted to modify the caps five times. With Congress unable perform one of its basic duties, it would be unwise to give them greater incentive to increase spending.

Another argument for bringing back earmarks is that the ban has made it harder to pass legislation. The problem is that for years earmarks were used as what amounts to legalized bribery. This line of thinking assumes that members will vote for legislation so long as they get something for their state or district in return.

In some cases, earmarks have led to flat out illegal behavior. It took high profile events, such as former California Rep. Duke Cunningham receiving $2.4 million in bribes in return for directing earmarks and being sentenced to 8 years in prison, to help get the ban in place. Why would Congress want to open the door to this kind of corruption again?

Earmarks have also been proven to favor the most powerful members of Congress. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, in the 111th Congress 61 percent of earmarked dollars were at the request of the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees — meaning that 15 percent of Congress controlled nearly two-thirds of earmarked funds. That’s not what representative government should look like.

With more programs than ever fighting for limited resources, Congress shouldn’t abandon one of the few methods of fighting wasteful (and potentially corrupt) spending. Instead of reopening the floodgates for earmarks, Congress should focus on returning to regular order, restoring oversight and accountability to the appropriations process and squelching the epidemic of zombie appropriations that plague federal spending.

President Trump promised Americans that he would drain the swamp. Bringing back earmarks would instead signal that the swamp is here to stay.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 1/29/18