An unsavory refrain that has been kicked around on Capitol Hill mere weeks after the 2016 elections has to do with the banning of earmarks–a line-item provision added to appropriations bills to direct funding to a specific project in a member of Congress’ district or state. Proponents of earmarks, duplicitously referring to them as “congressionally directed spending,” blame the ban on earmarks for Congress’s inability to reach compromises or build common ground.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), from the pro-earmarking camp, asserts that “[she has] always been supportive of making sure members of Congress have an opportunity to put funding into appropriations bills that work for their state.” President Trump added to this praise, stating that “[he heard] so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when [Congress] had earmarks.” With such bipartisan praise, one might think that the fuss from opponents of earmarks must either be much ado about nothing or, even worse, an active attempt at sabotaging a tool for consensus-building in such a polarized political climate.
The truth of the matter is that despite their rosy glow, earmarks are one of the most egregious ways in which the federal government wastes taxpayer dollars. A classic example is the now-infamous “bridge to nowhere,” a plan to connect the 8,208-resident city of Ketchikan, Alaska to a nearby airport. The plan was originally financed by earmarks totalling almost $450 million in spite of the Alaska Department of Transportation concluding that connecting residents to the airport could be done more effectively by upgrading the ferry service–a cost of $23 million by comparison.
The propensity for members of Congress to misuse federal dollars on projects in their district or state using the corrupt earmark system is hardly a matter of a few isolated incidents. Despite the earmark ban being place, in 2017 alone, the Citizens Against Government Waste chronicled $6.8 billion of taxpayer dollars used for earmark-like projects. Despite the protests of the pro-earmark side, this lard does not seem to have helped bridge partisan divides.
In fact, just the opposite is proving true. Upon the renewed call to fully reintegrate pork into the federal diet, a bipartisan group of Senators led by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced legislation that would result in a permanent ban on earmarks. Sens. Flake and McCaskill are in good company with their aversion to earmarks. Even more encouraging is a companion piece just introduced in the House by Reps. Ted Budd (NC-13), Jim Cooper (TN-05), Kathleen Rice (NY-04), and Ralph Norman (SC-05). This legislation, titled the Earmark Elimination Act of 2018, is further evidence of the bipartisan fervor that exists for making the appropriations process more transparent and, frankly put by Rep. Ralph Norman, “[ensures] that decisions to vote for or against a bill are on the bill’s merits.” The Founders too, were fiscally health-conscious.
In his first Presidential address to Congress in 1797, John Adams issued a stern warning that the debts created by governments of spendthrifts “in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own.” Thomas Jefferson added an anachronistic twist to current bipartisan calls for fiscal responsibility. On the subject of redirecting federal funds to serve individual members’ needs, Jefferson stated that they would precipitate a “scene of eternal scramble among the members who can get the most money wasted in their state, and they will always get most who are meanest.” Jefferson’s warning proved prescient. In 2012, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi secured $50 million in earmarks for a light-rail project which conveniently linked two of her husband’s properties.
As observed by McGill University Professor Jacob T. Levy, “the earmarking members of Congress are the same people who set the appropriations level” and as a result, “the knowledge that they were going to have a chance to start shoveling pork a little bit later in the process affected how much they appropriated at the beginning.” In other words, elected officials jostling to pile the appropriations plates high with pork are blinded to the wasteful mess they make through their gluttonous zeal. It is no wonder that this state of mind makes members of Congress ambivalent to the fact that the projects receiving federally earmarked allocations often have cost overruns associated with them.
Returning to the glory days of bridges to nowhere and running up debt with no regard simply because members can is a false, irresponsible, corrupt, and ruinous method of striving to achieve bipartisan cooperation. The Founders were clear in their prescriptive dietary tips for government. Pursuit’s own founder, Dr. Tom Coburn, reminds us that “Congress operated for 200 years prior to the creation of the modern earmark favor factory” and will continue to do so after putting a stop to one of the most disdainful ways in which federal tax dollars are squandered. By permanently abstaining from pork, the 115th Congress should remember the Founders’ warnings and endeavor to finally turn the page on the corrupt practice of earmarks.