This week, the House Rules Committee held hearings about potentially bringing back earmarks, or as many members like to call them, “congressionally directed spending.” Few points were made more than “the Constitution gives us the right to earmark.” Not only does this thinking undermine the Constitution, it shows Congress’s lack of priorities when it comes to doing their job.
Earmarks are provisions inserted into spending bills by Congress that allocate funds to a specific project or group, sidestepping any competition or merit-based approval process. “Earmarks can, and did, financially benefit politicians, their family members, and campaign donors,” says our founder and former Senator Tom Coburn. “As a member of both the House of Representatives and Senate, I have witnessed earmarking up close and know it is inherently corrupt. Earmarks were abused as a form of currency to buy and sell the votes of politicians and to reward political supporters.”
The practice of earmarking was banned in 2010 after the public learned Congress had earmarked over 11,000 projects the previous year at a cost of $32 billion. Now, less than a decade after the earmark ban, some Congressmen want to bring back the corrupt practice.
Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) was one of those supporters testifying at the hearing on Wednesday, exclaiming “what are we doing here” if we can’t earmark taxpayer funds for our district, a sentiment many on the panel shared. Obviously, if you took one government 101 class, you know much more is required of Congressmen than just “bringing home the bacon.”
One of Congress’s most important duties is to appropriate funds, and this is where these Members insists the founding fathers wrote the Constitution to encourage earmarks. Article I of the Constitution states, “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” But they simultaneously argue that earmarks only comprise a fraction of the budget – only $15 billion of the $4 trillion spent each year. So if it is a constitutional imperative to target funds to specific projects, then why are they not also setting salaries and Christmas bonuses for every person employed by the federal government?
The bigger constitutional principle they are ignoring is that powers not delegated in the Constitution are reserved for the states or to the people. It would be hard to convince an author of the Constitution that a bike path in Wisconsin or a Teapot Museum in Iowa is what the founders had in mind when constructing the enumerated powers.
Other pro-earmark excuses included, “Congress is giving away its powers to the executive branch by not earmarking specific projects,” and “nameless, faceless bureaucrats in Washington are not held accountable to the American people like we (Congress) are.”
It is true, Congress is giving away their power of the purse to the Executive branch, but not because the Executive branch is ignoring Congress, rather, Congress is failing to write laws that clearly state their purpose. Using merit-based criteria to allocate, for example, transportation funds, coupled with proper oversight, is crucial to a system that requires checks and balances to co-equal branches of government.
The problem with earmarks is that no matter how much transparency you create around them, it is individual Congressmen picking specific projects based on politics rather than merit. In this system, how do our tax dollars get divied up? Should they go to a Congressman’s home town? A particular county that turned out to vote for said Congressman? A powerful campaign ally who has a business in the district?
Congressmen say things like “how could a bureaucrat in Washington know about the problems in MY district,” but who is to say a lawyer-Congressman (as most of them are), knows more about what bridges need to be fixed, or levies that need to be patched throughout the United States better than a lifetime engineer employed by the the Department of Transportation or Army Corps of Engineers?
Earmarks are a corrupt practice that should not be brought back by Congress. It is disappointing to see Congressmen using the founding fathers to justify a “favor factory” for the well-connected.