Earmarks Return, Without Full Transparency | Citizens Against Government Waste

Earmarks Return, Without Full Transparency

The WasteWatcher

The passage on June 10, 2021 of the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee provided the first opportunity for the House of Representatives to pile on earmarks.  Legislators took full advantage, and in doing so, set a dangerous precedent.

The bill provided $547 billion in infrastructure spending over five years, including $5.7 billion in earmarks, or slightly more than one third of the $14.9 billion that was requested.

The INVEST Act presages a gloomy future for other spending bills: the promised transparency has not materialized.  The earmarks in the legislation do not list the member of Congress responsible for requesting each project.  While some identifying information is listed, like the nature of the project and the city and state that will receive funding, in order to identify the legislator who requested the earmark, a second list of overall requests must be consulted.

The manner in which the INVEST Act lists earmarks undermines the argument that members of Congress have made when they brought back earmarks: that they can be trusted to undertake the process in a fully transparent manner.  Public efforts to ascertain potential conflicts of interests and other problematic aspects of earmarking are hampered by this decision.

The current disclosure system pales in comparison to that implemented in fiscal years 2008-2010, prior to the implementation of the earmark moratorium.  During these three years, legislators were required to add their names in the legislation next to the earmarks they received.  Members of Congress instituted these rules following a decade of high-profile boondoggles like the Bridge to Nowhere; and scandals that resulted in jail terms for Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Time will tell whether the House Appropriations Committee will adopt a similarly opaque process when they craft the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government.  One thing is certain: Members of the most committees that write the transportation and appropriations bills are highly likely to continue to claim the lion’s share of earmarks.  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. 

Under the new requirements for earmarks, which allow for up to 10 requests per members but, “only a handful may actually be funded,” appropriators will likely once again engage in the legalized bribery that causes members to vote for excessively expensive spending bills that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few earmarks worth a few million or sometimes just thousands of dollars.  It remains to be seen which will end up being the worst earmark of this corrupt, costly, and inequitable process.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee failed the first test of the new era of earmarking.  The Appropriations Committee should correct this mistake.

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