Despite growing accustomed to only hearing bad news out of Congress as of late, there was finally cause for celebration for those concerned about America’s fiscal future.
Last week, Senate Republicans voted to adopt a plan boosted by Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) to permanently ban earmarks as a part of their conference rules. The 28-12 vote represents a welcome step in the bipartisan fight against the return of earmarks. Sen. Sasse perfectly encapsulated why this is such a victory for restoring fiscal sanity to Washington, stating the “last thing taxpayers need is for the same politicians who racked up a $22 trillion national debt to go on an earmark binge.” He adds that “backroom deals, kickbacks, and earmarks feed a culture of constant incumbency, and that’s poisonous to healthy self-government.”
The success of the permanent earmark ban by Senate Republicans also comes at a time where there is similar bipartisan interest in bringing them back. Sen. Sasse’s earmark ban was spurred by attempts by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to convince Republicans in both chambers to reintroduce the provision, and President Donald Trump has previously signaled his support for earmarks. As Sen. Sasse alluded to in his statement on the ban, this return would usher in even greater fiscal irresponsibility and dysfunctional governance at a time where both of those problems appear rampant.
Not everyone is happy with the earmark ban.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow John Hudak argues in favor of returning earmarks to Congress from the perspective of reasserting the body’s authority. Hudak writes that “Congress’s enumerated spending powers in Article I grant it not just the power, but the responsibility to deliver funding to both national and local priorities and needs.” He elaborates on this point by pointing out how the executive branch fills the space left by Congress with its own earmarking practices, concluding that “eliminating earmarking is a serious abdication of power by Congress which empowers a branch of government beyond what the Founders intended.”
Hudak rightly cites Congress’s Article I power as a responsibility to the public, but Article I, Section 9 is clear on how it addresses his concern about the separation of powers; “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Instead of reintroducing a wasteful and corruptive quid pro quo practice that results in members trading votes for pork landing in their backyards, Congress should write tighter appropriations bills with less room for executive branch discretion on how those funds are spent. Instead of doling out funds via political power, Congress can set clear criteria for executive branch agencies to prioritize how federal funds are allocated.
Sen. Sasse’s earmark ban represents a partial parting of the clouds for everyone — particularly young Americans — concerned with the fiscal path America is on. Earmark spending is admittedly a drop in the bucket when it comes to eye-popping numbers like the $22 trillion national debt and multi-billion dollar omnibus bills. But if we cannot get serious about wasteful spending at the margins, it is hard to imagine how lawmakers would be able to make decisions when it comes to tackling thornier sources of government spending.
For now, Senate Republicans deserve praise for the step they took. Let’s hope it serves as more than simple box checking in the struggle to return fiscal responsibility to Washington.