The Return of Earmarks is Cancelled, For Now | Citizens Against Government Waste

The Return of Earmarks is Cancelled, For Now

The WasteWatcher

On February 7, 2020, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) announced that she will scrap a planned return to earmarks.  However, given the level of support in Congress, the threat of a new era of earmarking has merely been delayed.

Last week’s announcement marked a reversal from discussions in January 2020, when Rep. Lowey signaled she was open to bringing back earmarks.  If the plan had gone forward, it would have been the first time since fiscal year (FY) 2010 that members of Congress allowed earmarks to openly exist in the twelve appropriations bills that fund the federal government.

House Appropriations Committee members Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) both expressed support for the return of earmarks in January 2020, but the notion enjoys bipartisan support.  That same month, House appropriator Tom Cole (R-Okla.) stated, “As an appropriator, I’m broadly supportive of the effort…I think we gave up a tool that we need both in terms of helping our own constituents and frankly, limiting the power of the executive branch in a legislatively appropriate way.”

It should come as no surprise that appropriators are leading the charge, as the distribution of earmarks are dominated by legislators with spots on that committee.  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 15 percent of Congress, were responsible for 51 percent of the projects and 61 percent of the money. 

Other prominent legislators from both parties that have called for an end to the earmark moratorium in recent years include Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and committee members Susan Collins (R-Maine), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); House appropriator Mike Simpson (R-Idaho); and leaders like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).  President Trump also endorsed their return on January 9, 2018.

While the moratorium has reduced the cost of earmarks from their peak of $29 billion in FY 2006, the present system is utterly devoid of transparency.  Citizens Against Government Waste identified $15.3 billion worth of earmarks in FY 2019, a record amount under the so-called moratorium.  Unlike preceding years, these projects lacked information as to where the funding was directed.

While the current system is far from perfect, the return of an open system of earmarking would have been a step in the wrong direction.  During the next debate on the subject, likely to occur at the same time next year, it will be worth noting why the moratorium was implemented in the first place:  earmarks acted as a currency of corruption that not only led to wasteful spending, but also culminated in jail terms for two members of Congress, Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Members of Congress should be mindful not to agitate too forcefully for a return of earmarks, or they risk joining their former colleagues in the hoosegow.  

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