Much-Maligned Congressional Earmarks Are Coming Back

Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro is spearheading the return of earmarks in her House Appropriations bailiwick. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

One of the few real trophies of the late, unlamented Tea Party movement was the decision by House Republicans upon taking power in 2011 to ban congressional “earmarks” — specific projects identified in congressional appropriations bills, designated by and to benefit individual members of Congress and their states or districts. In a characteristic misunderstanding, many Tea Folk blamed earmarks for out-of-control federal spending; they were really more like lubricants for big spending on more general programmatic needs from our massive defense infrastructure to the “entitlement” programs conservatives loathe but are afraid to openly attack. A few bad-sounding and heavily publicized examples of earmarks gave the whole phenomenon a bad name, as Vox’s Tara Golshan later explained:

The practice resulted in some notable scandals, including former California Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff going to jail for earmark-related bribes, and then there was the $223 million earmark for the “Bridge to Nowhere” to connect an 8,000-person Alaskan town to an airport.

With Democrats retaking control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 2011, their appropriators are signaling that earmarks will be coming back, perhaps in less controversial fashion. As Axios reports, House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is laying out some guardrails to prevent earmark abuse, including a cap on total earmarks at one percent of discretionary spending and a cap on individual member requests at ten. There will also be a ban on earmarks benefitting for-profit institutions or the relatives of members.

While Republican Members of Congress will be privately happy about the return of earmarks, in which they will be inclined to avidly participate, the right-wing House Freedom Caucus is already attacking the new policy. You could see it becoming a talking point for the Trump wing of the GOP on grounds that earmarks are the liquid sustenance for the Swamp. But somebody had better brief the 45th president on it; in 2018 he embarrassed conservatives in a livestreamed meeting with congressional leaders by waxing nostalgic for earmarks as the way stuff used to get done. “[T]here was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” said the inveterate enemy of Washington’s elitist bipartisan traditions.

In his clumsy way, Trump was endorsing one of the big arguments for earmarks: that it encourages bipartisan cooperation. After a House Rules Committee hearing in 2018 aimed at fostering a reassessment of the practice, senators were among those praising the good cheer it spread, as PBS reported:

[I]n interviews, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they supported the change, saying it would make it easier to reach bipartisan deals in Congress. By including funding for members’ own pet projects, previous congressional leaders were able to twist arms and secure votes for otherwise unpopular legislation. …

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the restoration of earmarks would “help rectify what has been an enormous shift in power from Congress to the executive branch over the past ten years.”

Nothing unites legislators quite like wresting credit from presidents for the benefits of laws they pass.

In any event, it will be interesting to see if members of Congress facing difficult reelections in 2022 choose to take full advantage of earmarks to show the folks back home how much clout they have, or instead eschew earmarks out of fear that opponents will demagogue the issue much as Tea Party allies did in 2010.

Much-Maligned Congressional Earmarks Are Coming Back