Why Congressional Earmarks Are Staging a Comeback

While definitions vary, it generally refers to legislative language inserted by an individual lawmaker to direct funds to a specific project or to a locality in their congressional district or state. These are expenditures that otherwise may not merit funding through normal formula-driven or competitive award processes run by executive branch agencies. Earmarks can also take the form of tax or tariff benefits.

2. Why did they draw such criticism?

At least as practiced in the past, there was a lack of transparency to earmarks, which in many cases were dropped into bills with little or no notice. And at least some earmarked projects had questionable benefit. The much-lampooned so-called Bridge to Nowhere — actually, two proposed bridges connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to its island airport, sparing travelers a ride on a ferry — collected more than $400 million in earmarks in the early 2000s before being scrapped. Earmarked funds also played a role in corruption scandals, including that of former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who was convicted of accepting bribes in order to steer specific federal defense contracts to certain contractors, a form of earmarking. (Cunningham was pardoned by President Donald Trump on his last day in office.)

3. When and why did earmarks go away?

After Republicans took over the House in the 2010 elections, the party formally banned the practice of earmarking, and the Senate’s Democratic majority agreed to go along. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, had gained power by harnessing the energy of the Tea Party movement, which had made the growing deficit a part of its opposition to President Barack Obama. Banning earmarks was one way to tell voters that the deficit was being controlled, and it was easier than raising taxes or cutting entitlements.

4. Why might earmarks return?

Many Democratic lawmakers said the 2010 ban was unnecessary in light of new transparency measures put in place just before Republicans assumed control. Democrats debated bringing earmarks back after winning the House in 2018 but decided to wait until after the 2020 presidential election to broach the controversial topic. Now with narrow majorities in the House and the Senate, Democrats are moving to resurrect earmarks with a preferred new name — “community project funding requests” — and a renewed commitment to the rules that were supposed to make the process more transparent. In a surprise move, House Republicans voted narrowly to go along. Senate Republicans may follow suit ahead of congressional consideration of a plan to spend $1 trillion or more on infrastructure improvements.

As delineated by the House Appropriations Committee, each lawmaker can make up to 10 requests for funding. There is to be a searchable public database of the requests, and lawmakers must certify that they and their immediate families have no financial interest in the projects. Earmarked funding can’t go to for-profit companies. Total earmarks can’t exceed 1% of spending that goes through the Appropriations Committee. That means an annual limit of about $15 billion (based on 2021 discretionary spending of $1.49 trillion). The Government Accountability Office would conduct regular audits of a sampling of earmarked projects.

6. What’s the case for earmarks?

Proponents argue that the elected members of the legislative branch know the needs of their constituents better than bureaucrats in executive branch agencies do. (During the earmarks ban, those agencies have had full control over funding decisions, often based on grant formulas.) Some academics have further argued that earmarking will smooth the ability of Congress to strike bipartisan deals.

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