Friends, Romans, countrymen… end me your earmarks.
Also sometimes called “congressionally directed spending” or more derisively “pork,” earmarks are the awarding of a specific project (such as for transportation infrastructure) at the request of a specific member of Congress, rather than being decided by a government agency..
“Earmark” had become a dirty word in politics by the late 2000s and early 2010s, particularly after the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Pushed by both an Alaska representative and senator, the projected $398 million bridge was slated to connect an Alaskan town to an island with only 50 residents. The plan became the most famous national example of the kind of expensive government waste possible with earmarks. All told, however, earmarks accounted for less than one half of one percent of the federal budget.
After Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, one of their first actions in 2011 was banning earmarks. Politics made strange bedfellows, as both the House Republican majority and President Obama united in opposition to earmarks. The Senate Democratic majority supported them, but eventually caved after Obama vowed to veto any bill that included earmarks.
After a full decade with earmarks banned (or just made harder to see), their reputation began to shift.
The 2010s were Congress’s most polarized decade since the Civil War, with many blaming the demise of earmarks as one of the biggest culprits, since earmarks were a part of the horse trading usually required to build bipartisan coalitions for legislation. (Think: “If you vote for my bill, I’ll throw in a bridge for your district.”) Others noted that because transportation and infrastructure projects were going to occur anyway, with the loss of earmarks, members of Congress lost much of their prior control over the appropriations process.
In February 2021, the Democratic-led House brought back earmarks, albeit with strict limitations intended to prevent future bridges to nowhere. (As for that infamous bridge, the project actually continued for several years after the 2011 earmark ban as non-earmarked spending, but was ultimately cancelled in 2015.)
What the legislation does
Two bills both named the Earmark Elimination Act would, when taken together, create new procedural hurdles for passing bills with earmarks.
The Senate bill would allow passing a bill with an earmark only with an unlikely two-thirds vote in that chamber. Although the House bill has no specific loophole for including earmarks, the House can always waive its rules by a majority vote and does so often. So while the bill is titled the Earmark Elimination Act, in practice it would create new roadblocks to enacting earmarks, rather than eliminating them entirely.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that earmarks allow special favors and individual deals for specific members of Congress or contractor companies, rather than the “best for the entire nation” approach that should govern federal spending.
“Earmarks are exactly what’s wrong with Congress — they allow shady back room deals that reward special interests and make lobbyists rich,” Sen. Daines said in a press release. “It’s a mistake for Democrats to bring earmarks back — it’s the definition of swampy. Congress must keep them banned.”
“Congress has a constitutional responsibility to determine where and how our tax dollars are spent. Unfortunately, the way we appropriate federal dollars has deteriorated into a national disgrace,” Rep. Norman said in a separate press release. “It amazes me that Congress seeks to restore earmarks but apparently has no desire to restore regular order to the appropriations process. This is sure to lead to more corruption and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, which is why we need to pass the Earmarks Elimination Act.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the resurrection of earmarks, under the more palatable name Community Project Funding, will allow members of Congress to better prioritize and fund their own home districts — which, after all, is the whole reason why they were elected in the first place.
“Members want Congress to help their communities, particularly now as the pandemic exposed so many inequalities and needs,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) said in a press release. “Community Project Funding will allow members to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.”
It’s not just Democrats who have expressed openness to earmarks, but the most famous Republican of all: former President Donald Trump.
“You know, our system lends itself to not getting things done,” Trump said in 2018. “And I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks. In the old days of earmarks, you can say what you want about certain presidents and others . . . they went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system. And maybe we should think about it.”
Odds of passage
The House bill has attracted 10 cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Rules Committee. Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
The Senate bill has attracted 13 cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled Congress.