The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Anachronistic Earmark Offering from Culberson, Rogers, and Rooney

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Americans might fondly remember 2006:  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was the top grossing movie, Sexyback by Justin Timberlake was at the top of the charts, and Bob Barker announced his retirement from The Price is Right.

Other events might not harken such recollections, particularly the record $29 billion worth of earmarks that members of Congress stuffed into the fiscal year (FY) 2006 appropriations bills.  The 9,963 earmarks identified by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) included $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative; $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina; and $250,000 for the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa.

It is to these halcyon days that three members of Congress wish to return.

On November 16, 2016, Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) offered an anachronistic amendment to the House Republican Rules Committee that would have permitted legislators to add earmarks to a limited group of federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.  Earmarks for recreation facilities, parks, and other such projects would have been disallowed under the plan.  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to delay the vote to the first quarter of 2017.

This amendment was offered only eight days after an election in which voters made it abundantly clear that they desired an end to wasteful spending in Washington, and gave Republicans control of both chambers of Congress and the executive branch.  A vote to resurrect earmarks would have been (and might be still) a shocking repudiation of these results.

These three members either have incredibly short memories, or are trying to lose the majority in the next election.  They have apparently forgotten that earmarking led to congressional corruption, including the incarceration of legislators (mostly Republicans), staff, and lobbyists who used the process to buy votes.  They also seem to have no recall of the loss of the House majority by Republicans in the 2006 elections – the same year as the record $29 billion in pork.

While the adoption of the earmark moratorium that began in FY 2011 has not been perfect, as CAGW continues to identify earmarks, including 123 in FY 2016 costing $5.1 billion, and there remains a distinct lack of transparency in the process, appropriations bills in this era have contained far less pork.  This has been an undeniably positive step.

One of the most frequently-used arguments in favor of a return of earmarks is that they would help pass certain spending bills.  In the past, however, members have voted for excessively expensive legislation because they have received a few earmarks, which means the moratorium has helped restrain spending.  A return to rampant earmarking would inevitably increase the risk of corruption and the potential for an explosion in expenditures compared to current levels.

Earmarks create a few winners (appropriators, special interests, and lobbyists) and a great many losers (taxpayers).  They contribute to the deficit directly, by tacking on extra funding, and indirectly, by attracting votes to costly legislation that might not otherwise pass.  Earmarks corrupt democracy by eclipsing more important matters in the minds of legislators and voters.

Repealing the moratorium would inexorably result in a return to the peak years of earmarking.  It would also likely mark the return of wasteful expenditures such as the Bridge to Nowhere, studies on Goth culture, and the construction of indoor rain forests.

Since FY 1991, the year of the first Congressional Pig Book Summary, CAGW has identified 110,442 earmarks costing $323.1 billion.  The vast majority of these occurred prior to the earmark moratorium.  The biggest earmark totals in terms of number and cost certainly occurred prior to the moratorium.  While the present system is not perfect, it is a far better alternative than a return to the bad old days of the Wild West of earmarks.

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