Earmarks, often synonymous with “pork-barrel” spending by their fiercest critics, might be making a return to a Congress near you. After being unofficially banned by both Republicans and Democrats in the 112th Congress following multiple corruption scandals, this controversial form of federal funding might potentially make its return in the regular legislative procedure. As a bipartisan effort to overturn an earmark ban has been making its way through the House, the Senate seems to be following suit.
A self-imposed ban by Senate Republicans was initiated in 2019 and even reaffirmed just months ago has the potential to be overturned, and many Republican senators have signaled support for its repeal despite opposition from within the party.
A Matter of Perception
The value of legislative earmarks has been called into question due to public perception of them as legal, political bribes. The reality of lobbying already gives Congress a reputation for corruption. The appearance of offering millions in taxpayer money to sway sitting members of Congress on a critical legislative vote wouldn’t be looked upon fondly by Americans tired of funding government excess.
Throughout the early 2000s, earmarks were often abused to enrich sitting legislators or cozy up to business industries. The Bridge to Nowhere, Duke Cunningham’s (R-CA) kickbacks to military contractors, and even research grants for drunk mice represent just some of the controversies and absurdities within the practice. Perhaps one of the more notable earmarks was the “Cornhusker Kickback,” in which Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) voted to invoke cloture on the Republican filibuster of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the Senate.
His vote came after he was promised that his state of Nebraska would be permanently reimbursed for any expenses the state would incur in expanding Medicaid eligibility. This likely incentivized the senator to vote to invoke cloture and eventually help lead to the passing of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) despite his claims to the contrary.
Earmarks served as useful bargaining chips for legislative compromise for most of our country’s history, though. Regular legislative order requires bipartisanship, at least within the Senate, considering its nature of encouraging unlimited debate. Providing funding to the home states of legislators gives them an incentive to bridge ideological divides for the benefit of their constituents. Since the demise of legislative earmarks, executive branch overreach has instead come to dominate small-scale funding in the absence of Congressional action. The Constitution itself grants Congress spending powers and the responsibility to fund both national and more local projects and needs.
Regardless of the faults of earmarking before its ban, the practice of pork-barrel spending continued through other means like omnibus bills. After all, who can forget Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) live-tweeting of the 2018 omnibus bill’s over-the-top funding for things like sexually promiscuous quail research and academic scholarships in the Middle East?
Bringing back earmarking won’t necessarily stop the executive branch from obsessively creeping more into the lives of Americans but will undoubtedly leave that power in the hands of legislators rather than lifelong government bureaucrats.
Congress has long been labeled a pay-for-play institution due to the influence of corporate lobbyists writing regulations for their own industries and business sectors. Legislative gridlock will only continue to infuriate and incense everyday Americans that elect their district’s representatives and receive nothing in return. The case for bringing back earmarks is there; what matters is how they will be used. As of now, House and Senate Republicans seem optimistic about the new oversight earmarks they will receive if they are indeed brought back. In today’s hyper-partisan media climate, sneaking through wasteful spending is practically asking to be crucified by social media and the American public. If we’ve learned anything the last decade, it’s that nobody is eager to line up next on the chopping block of public corruption.
Read more from Jose Backer.