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Democrats planning revival of congressional earmarks following GOP's 10-year ban

Earmarks, or "member-directed spending," are provisions tucked away in large spending vehicles that directly fund a pet project championed by an individual member of Congress for the benefit of the member's own constituents.

Published: February 18, 2021 2:20pm

Updated: February 20, 2021 10:23pm

Democrats now in control of Congress are reportedly poised to revive so-called "earmarks" in new legislation — after Republicans nixed them in 2011 as wasteful spending or "pork." 

According to reporting by Punchbowl News, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) — the respective chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees — will shortly announce the reintroduction of earmarks for spending bills in the next fiscal year.

Earmarks, otherwise known as "member-directed spending," are provisions discreetly tucked away in large spending vehicles that directly fund a pet project championed by a specific member of Congress for the member's own constituents. Republicans banned the practice in 2011 shortly after regaining control of the House. Senate Republicans ultimately went along with their lower chamber colleagues. 

Now, for the first time in a decade, the practice may have enough momentum for a revival. Leahy has endorsed bringing back earmarks several times over the years, and his office now says that he "has been clear about his intent to restore congressionally-directed spending in a transparent and accountable way as part of Congress' constitutional power of the purse."

DeLauro's spokesperson said that she likewise "has been clear that she supports Member-directed funding for community projects" and is currently working to reform the earmarking process.

She will "share additional information with Members and the public in the coming weeks," said her office.

Another congressional leader who has long endorsed the return of earmarking is House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Earlier this week, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber told fellow Democrat members that earmarks will be revived this Congress and that he could "guarantee" the effort "will be bipartisan."

Despite Hoyer's guarantee, however, Politico Pro reports that at least some conservatives are currently getting together in an effort that would ban earmarks permanently. A Republican aide familiar with the plan disclosed that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) are leading the the effort and plan on publicly supporting the Earmark Elimination Act, which previously had support from a handful of moderate Democrats as well. 

Fiscally conservative D.C. advocacy groups remain vehemently opposed to the practice of earmarking. Among them is Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes the annual Congressional Pig Book documenting egregious instances of wasteful government spending,

"Earmarks are the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practice in the history of Congress," CAGW President Tom Schatz told Just the News. "They led to members, staff, and lobbyists being incarcerated. In a form of legalized bribery, members of Congress vote for tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in appropriations bills in return for a few million dollars in earmarks. Earmarks go to those in power, as shown during the 111th Congress, when the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, who constituted 15% of Congress, got 51% of the earmarks and 61% of the money. Restoring earmarks will lead to the same results." 

Previously, earmark investigations have led to the legal downfall of several lawmakers and at least one high-profile lobbying firm. 

The late Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), famously called earmarks the "gateway drug on the road to the spending addiction."

One Republican who has yet to be heard from on the resumption of earmarks is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and his office did not respond to an inquiry for this article. Under current GOP rules, Republicans are banned from making earmark requests, so the question for McCarthy is whether he will continue to enforce the ban or, instead, release members of his caucus to participate in the now-dormant practice.

The Republican turn away from earmarking in the 2010s yielded mixed results. On one hand, the ban reduced the number of pork projects that received government funding — the proximate goal of the policy (and easiest to accomplish). And politically, the ban proved useful as a populist rallying cry that helped the GOP regain its House majority in 2010. On the other hand, there's little evidence the ban did much to advance the larger goal of holding domestic discretionary spending in check.

For some, the earmark ban's failure to make a serious dent in the growth of government spending is just another reminder that domestic discretionary spending is but a drop in the bucket next to the true source of runaway deficits and debt: entitlement spending. 

Brent Gardner, the chief government affairs officer at the libertarian conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said of the current focus on earmarks: "The divisions on this issue are stark and cut across partisan lines, but what this conversation really puts on full display, once again, is a lack of interest on either side to address the real drivers of overspending and the national debt: so-called 'mandatory' programs like healthcare entitlements and Social Security. Until Congress makes a real commitment to addressing those programs, everything else is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

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