Earmark Effort Demonstrates Tone-Deafness About Swamp Drainage
By William M. Christian
WasteWatcher, February 2017
On November 16, 2016, eight days after the momentous election of Donald J. Trump as president (with his promise to “drain the swamp”), House Republicans inexplicably contemplated the restoration of earmarks. Fortunately, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) forestalled a vote during a meeting of the Republican Conference, promising instead a thoughtful and transparent discussion about the pros and cons of earmarks during the first quarter of 2017. That date appears to have been moved to the third quarter, following the announcement by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) that he will hold public hearings and issue recommendations by July 4, 2017.
The “pork masters” behind the scheme to restore earmarks are Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), all of whom were named as Citizens Against Government Waste’s (CAGW) December Porkers of the Month.
The effort to restore earmarks is troublesome for many reasons. When Republicans lost the majority in 2006, the $24 billion in pork-barrel projects in the 2005 highway bill, including the infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, followed by the record $29 billion in earmarks in the fiscal year (FY) 2006 appropriations bills were both major factors. The incarceration of members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists as a result of the corruptive earmark process was also influential in voters turning against Republicans.
When Republicans regained the House majority in 2010, they quickly decided to establish a moratorium on earmarks after considering various proposals to limit the practice. They determined that there is no such thing as a “limitation” on earmarks. Once the door is open, there will not be any restrictions. Republicans knew then, as all Republicans should know now, that this is an all-or-nothing proposition.
The siren song of earmarks may sound enticing to the current crop of House Republicans, since more than 60 percent were elected in 2010 or later. Their entire congressional career has therefore been in the “earmark free” generation of legislators that has thrived under the 2011 moratorium. These members were not present when earmarks led to jail time for some of their own. They were not around when earmarks were a key factor in the loss of the House Republican majority. And simply listening to the arguments of their colleagues without understanding the history and abuse of earmarks provides them with only one side of the story.
For example, they do not know how earmarks were used as the currency of re-election after then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told House Appropriations subcommittee chairmen to direct projects into the districts of vulnerable Republican freshmen after the party took the majority in the 1994 elections. Earmarks nearly doubled from $7.8 billion in FY 1994 to $14.5 billion in FY 1997, and then doubled again to the record $29 billion in FY 2006. Since 1991, Congress has approved 110,442 earmarks costing taxpayers $321.1 billion.
In an attempt to educate their colleagues and following the unanimous vote by Senate Republicans to extend the earmark moratorium on January 10, 2017, fiscal conservatives pushed back in the House. On January 31, 2017, Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and CAGW President Tom Schatz co-hosted a panel discussion on the consequences of reviving earmarks. Participants included Reps. Jim Bates (R-Ind.), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and former RSC chairman Bill Flores (R-Texas), Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and former senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The senators not only questioned why earmarks were being discussed at all, they (and several representatives) warned that violating or modifying the moratorium would likely deal a mortal blow to the Republican majority in the House.
Congressional critics of the moratorium complain that a prohibition against “congressionally directed spending” for specific projects denies the Congress its constitutional prerogatives of “the power of the purse.” Moreover, they contend, any effort by members to merely inquire as to the merits of certain spending decisions by the executive branch is virtually proscribed by the spirit—if not the word—of the moratorium, rendering the legislative branch impotent in the ultimate distribution of taxpayer dollars.
CAGW disagrees with these perspectives on the impact of the moratorium.
First, the House and Senate have specific and very similar definitions of what constitutes an earmark. Merely inquiring about the status of a grant or loan application from a constituent that has been submitted according to statutory guidelines (in other words, not an earmark), or requesting that such an application be expedited at a federal agency, has never been considered a violation of ethics rules. It is therefore not true that the mere mention of a specific location that needs funding in such a communication triggers an ethics violation.
Second, there is no disagreement that the Congress’s rightful role is clearly defined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution as being in charge of the appropriation of taxpayer dollars. However, members of Congress should not be rated, much less rewarded, on their ability to divert the national treasure from other states and districts, either through seniority, committee assignment, party affiliation, or leadership rank. As several speakers at the CAGW-RSC briefing noted, having the ability to earmark specific projects does not mean that it should be done.
Third, both appropriators and authorizers have the full weight of the Constitution behind them with respect to their oversight powers, under which any member may inquire of any agency the rationale for any expenditure of funds. Indeed, that is one of their primary responsibilities. Moreover, if members of Congress take issue with the rationale provided for the expenditure of any taxpayer dollar, it is all the more incumbent upon them to attempt to provide a more equitable distribution through changes in authorization bills. Again, several speakers at the January 31 briefing made it clear that this is the proper method to address any concerns about how funds are allocated by the executive branch.
To put earmarks and congressional duties in perspective, the Congressional Budget Office has identified 256 laws worth $310 billion that are not authorized. For example, 100 percent of spending for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation is unauthorized, along with 98 percent of the U.S. Coast Guard and 96 percent of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Rather than spending so much time arguing over what Chairman Sessions called “approximately $18 billion in appropriated spending that the administration gets to decide how to spend instead of Congress,” members of Congress should conduct more oversight hearings and determine how that $18 billion should be spent.
In their ill-advised advocacy of earmarks, members of Congress often cite this minimal relative cost. If the total is really $18 billion, that equals 1.5 percent of the $1.219 trillion discretionary budget in FY 2017. But this so-called reasoning misses the point. To the contrary, if earmarks are the bribes necessary to garner support for more comprehensive, far-reaching pieces of legislation, then the costs to taxpayers (in the form of vast, overreaching government intrusion into their everyday lives) is much greater than the earmark itself.
CAGW has called earmarks “legalized bribery.” In exchange for a few million dollars in earmarks, members of Congress are “required” to vote for hundreds of billions of dollars in appropriations bills that they might not otherwise support. Supporters of restoring earmarks argue that this “log rolling” is necessary to enact legislation. CAGW and fiscal conservatives believe that the earmark moratorium has led to lower spending and the restoration of the practice would cause the budget to explode. The cost will be far greater than just “approximately $18 billion.”
And beware the proverbial “camel’s nose under the tent.” Earmark advocates have invoked the circumstance of the Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), whose water infrastructure projects have long been the focus of much political wrangling. One of the “earmark revival” amendments in the November 2016 discussion was sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who proposed to allow members of Congress to “direct [Corps] funding to projects in their districts.”
Given the prevalence of Corps projects throughout the states (including numerous congressional districts), this “limited scope” definition would have been tantamount to a re-opening of the floodgates (pun intended). Ironically, water projects administered by the Corps were the subject of significant reform under H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, which was crafted to address concerns bemoaned by the would-be earmarkers.
One can easily imagine the creativity that will be employed by members of Congress to identify projects in order to fit them into the “Corps” exception: “I see a small puddle in my district,” or “I think I see a few drops of water over there,” or “this project is within 100 miles of a federal waterway,” or “we may need flood control in 30 years.”
Yet another earmark restoration proposal, offered by Rep. John A. Culberson (R-Texas), “would have allowed lawmakers to direct appropriations to federal, state or local government projects.” Again, there will be unlimited and madly ingenious ways to fit any project into such a definition. The “approximately $18 billion” will quickly hit $29 billion and beyond.
At a time when the national debt is nearly $20 trillion, the nation cannot afford to waste money on a single pork-barrel project. Taxpayer dollars should be awarded on the basis of merit, not political power. True fiscal conservatives (those that walk the walk, not just talk the talk during campaign season) should oppose any attempts to eliminate the earmark moratorium; moreover, the moratorium should be made permanent.
Regardless of what they are called or how they are “justified,” earmarks are nothing more than self-serving, corruptive, pork-barrel projects. The preservation of a conservative majority depends on a disciplined adherence to fiscally conservative principles, not a return to the business-as- usual, “fat cat” cronyism of a bygone era.
Regardless of what is done in the House regarding the earmark moratorium, it will be a self-defeating process. Senate Republicans have made it clear, both by their unanimous vote to extend the moratorium and by the comments made by Sens. Flake and Lee at the CAGW-RSC briefing, that they will not vote for any earmarks. And while President Trump has not yet spoken on the subject matter, Vice President Pence was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the earmark moratorium. If anything is certain in Washington, no one at the White House is going to be tweeting or commenting in support of a restoration of earmarks in any form.
If House Republicans move forward with this ill-advised plan to pork up the spending bills, it won’t take the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the swamp. The voters will bulldoze the House Republican majority in 2018.