The most surprising political proposal of this New Year has been the announcement that Republicans in Congress are planning to hold hearings soon to discuss bringing back earmarks. Following the populist wave of the 2016 elections, which culminated in the election of President Trump based in large part on his promise to drain the Washington swamp, it is perplexing to see politicians suggest bringing back earmarks, widely considered the most swampy and establishmentarian practice of all.
Killed off by the GOP in 2011, earmarking was the practice of lawmakers reallocating federal funds to send appropriated tax dollars to their own pet projects. They were the unpopular and opaque embodiment of the D.C. swamp and of the looting mentality which pervaded and continues to pervade the nation’s capital. So why bring earmarks back?
The primary argument advanced by lawmakers and assorted national punditry to bring earmarks back is that they are necessary to restore voting discipline. Without earmarks, so the logic goes, congressional leadership will never be able to muster the votes to pass legislation. After all, earmarks aren’t that bad, and anyway if billions in federal funding are not funneled to the parochial pet projects of individual senators and representatives, then these elected officials will never do their job.
This argument is wrong, both financially and morally.
Financially, earmarks are expensive and wasteful. According to the Citizens Against Government Waste’s Congressional Pig Book, there have been 110,605 earmarks since 1991, costing taxpayers a cool $329.8 billion. That is a massive sum, and it has been spent not on paying down the national debt or ensuring America is protected, but instead on Bridges to Nowhere or Turtle Tunnels.
Morally, earmarks are legislative bribery. James Madison wrote in Federalist 57 that our elected representatives should be those “who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
Madison might be concerned to see that some representatives now serving in Congress believe that the only way they can be coerced into keeping promises to their voters is for leadership to slip them a few dollars like teenagers trying to bribe their way into a club.
It says something about those serving in Congress that the only way that they can be coaxed into governing by the principles enshrined in the Constitution is simple bribery. Our representatives are supposed to be servant leaders, intelligent and thoughtful individuals, giving of themselves to serve their fellow citizens. Instead, they insist on acting like Third World border guards requesting a ‘gift’ before they stamp a passport.
Earmarks were harmful to the nation, exemplifying waste and demeaning our governing bodies. It was a major victory for America and Americans when earmarks were ended. Congress can and should do its job—the job its members are elected to do—without earmarks to grease their palms.
It would be politically unpopular and financially irresponsible to bring earmarks back, and if Congress wishes to live up to Madison’s ideals and their own calling, they won’t.