Congress Displays High Level of Support for Earmarks | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congress Displays High Level of Support for Earmarks

The WasteWatcher

While they never quite went away, an open system of earmarking is returning in fiscal year (FY) 2022.  Early indications are that the vast majority of members of Congress will participate in requesting earmarks.

As part of the rules established to bring open earmarks back, members of the House of Representatives were required to submit their requests by April 30, 2021.  These requests were then posted on the House Appropriations Committee website.  Out of 430 sitting House members, 320, or approximately 75 percent, requested earmarks.  House leadership mostly chose to participate in the process.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) all requested earmarks.

Similar uptake is expected in the Senate, where at least six Republicans intend to join Democrats in requesting earmarks, and a further 10 are undecided.  Five additional Republican senators have not commented on the issue.

While some of the requests may look innocuous, a few have raised eyebrows, like $3 million by Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah) for a smartphone app to track bus locations; $436,100 by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) for a “meditation and restorative yoga program;” $400,000 by Rep. Vincente Gonzalez (D-Texas) to install three restrooms at hike and bike trails; and $150,000 by Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) for a streetscape beautification and rebranding improvement project.  So far, the projects requested by representatives would cost nearly $6 billion.

With this startling level of acquiescence by members of Congress, it is worth revisiting why earmarks were eliminated in the first place.  The practice circumvents the competitive process whereby agencies weigh the merits of spending projects that move from local review to the state to a federal agency, which awards money to the highest priority projects with the context of the statutory requirements enacted by Congress.  A September 7, 2007 Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT OIG) report noted that 7,724, or 99 percent of the 7,760 projects for FY 2006 reviewed by the OIG worth $8 billion at three DOT agencies either failed to be “subject to the agencies’ normal review and planning process or bypassed the states’ normal planning and programming processes.”  At the Federal Aviation Administration, nine of the 10 earmarked air traffic control tower replacement projects were low priority, and their funding caused a three-year delay in planning for higher priority projects.  There were 16 projects out of 65 at the Federal Highway Administration that failed to meet the statutory requirements of the Interstate Maintenance Discretionary Program.  It is likely that many of the projects requested by representatives so far will be along these same lines.

Moreover, earmarks are highly likely to continue to provide the most benefit to those with spots on prime congressional committees.  In the 111th Congress, when the names of members of Congress who obtained earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, the 81 House and Senate appropriators, making up only 15 percent of Congress, were responsible for 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money.  House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro has indicated as much by saying that not all earmark requests will be granted.

The last system of open earmarking resulted in jail terms for Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), congressional staff, and lobbyists like Jack Abramoff.  It remains to be seen whether the next member of Congress sentenced to prison for corruptly using earmarks just requested one for the first time.