The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Will Earmarks Make a Comeback?

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.


In today’s (August 26, 2013 ) National Journal, there is a column by Fawn Johnson entitled, “Does the Earmark Moratorium Hurt Congress?” (The National Journal is a subscription service and I think you might still see it, but if not I describe it anyway.)

The article starts with a disclaimer, “the earmark moratorium in the House is not going away.  Staffers for House Speaker John Boehner and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., made that fact abundantly clear when National Journal was putting together its special issue on the Transportation Committee.”  But the article also mentions there is certainly is a lot of melancholy and thinking about the good old days when earmarks were in abundance.

I can confirm that the scuttlebutt on Capitol Hill for sometime is how much many Members of Congress miss being able to earmark projects in legislation, especially in appropriation bills.  The National Journal points out the ban “takes away Congress's ability to direct taxpayer resources and leaves all that power in the hands of the administration.  This is particularly troubling to Republicans, who don't trust President Obama to abide by any of their wishes.  But it also worries some Democrats, who don't want Congress to unnecessarily cede authority to another branch of government.”

While Members, particularly the aforementioned Republicans, may think having earmarks again will give them more power to direct where spending should occur in the Obama Administration, I would argue that is pretty naïve thinking.  After all, this administration has been flouting the law for some time, as I wrote about here.  I am not the only one who believes this.  Other columns, such as one by George Will and another by Charles Krauthammer have expressed similar dismay and concern that we have a president that ignores the law daily and writes new law regularly.

But the column also points out that “[v]eterans of the Transportation Committee say that in the past, earmarks actually made their work on legislation more meaningful because it provided a way for members who weren't on the committee to engage in complicated legislation.  Were some of the projects tucked into highway or water bills unnecessary or inappropriate?  Maybe, but you can probably count those offenders on one hand.  The vast majority of the projects were arguably legitimate and useful, and they accounted for less than 10 percent of the legislation.”

What the column doesn’t mention, and what CAGW knows from its years of work on its Pig Book, is that most of the earmarks went to Appropriation Committee members, since they wrote the spending bills.  Also, that the Democrats and Republicans split the earmarks at about a 60 – 40 percent level, depending on who was in the majority.  Obviously, a chairman or ranking member tended to get a bigger piece of the pork pie and longevity in Congress didn’t hurt either.  Frankly, merit had less to do with the expenditure than who wanted the earmark.

CAGW has also claimed that earmarks are the gateway drug to more spending and a way to buy a vote, and it isn’t just with appropriations bills.  The Transportation Committee takes money from the states in the form of the federal gasoline tax that has been put in one big pot – the Highway Trust Fund – and then redistributes the money back to the states, a highly politicized and pork-infested process.  Many argue (here and here) the system is outdated and it is time for a change.

And who could forget the crafting of Obamacare and such horrendous and expensive earmarks as the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, or the Bay State Boondoggle for Senators Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), respectively in order to secure their votes for final passage.

Members of Congress who support earmarking will often claim they want to take back their power from the executive branch and the ones that complain the loudest are the big porkers from the past.  Rep. Don Young of Bridge to No-Where fame said in a July 24, 2013 National Journal article “I’m not going to be part of a bill that will not retain power back to Congress…I’m fed up with this idea that we’re ceding power. Why the hell are we congressmen?”

Well, I could say why in the hell have an Executive Branch of government if Congress wants to determine where all the spending goes?  Furthermore, if certain Members of Congress want money to go to a particular project, then it should be debated in the open and in a committee forum to make sure it is worth receiving federal tax dollars.  Decisions shouldn’t be based on what congressional committee a Member serves on or how much tenure they have.

If anything needs to be sequestered, its any thought of bringing back pork-filled earmarks.

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