Congressional earmarks are back. The Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will allow up to $13 billion in earmarks on House appropriations bills, 10 per member, for a total of up to 4,350 earmarks for fiscal year 2022.
House Republicans released a statement arguing that earmarks are a pathway to congressional corruption. One member of the caucus, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), argued that earmarks are “little more than legislative bribery.”
The late Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) frequently called earmarks “the gateway drug” to corruption and overspending, and spearheaded the 2011 ban.
Even President Barack Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, said he would veto any bill containing earmarks, saying “… the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it. I will veto it.”
At the height of earmarking in 2005, Congress passed 15,000 Congressional earmarks, at a cost of $29 billion, according to The Heritage Foundation. And from the earmark largess flowed corruption, convictions, and waste.
One notorious 2005 earmark, Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” cost an estimated $80 million to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island, home to 50 people.
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) went to jail after he tearfully confessed conspiring to pass out earmarks and pocketing $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode. (President Trump gave Cunningham a conditional pardon in Trump’s final days in the White House.)
In 2005, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) used a $207 million federal transportation earmark to construct the “Prairie Parkway” near some newly purchased farmland, which his trust proceeded to sell a few months later for a multi-million dollar profit.
That same year, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates were convicted for bribing legislators with gifts and campaign contributions for votes on earmarked funding.
Over the years, other earmarks drew scrutiny and scorn: a $3.4 million earmark for turtle tunnels under a Florida highway, a $50 million earmark for an indoor rain forest in Iowa, $1 million for a Woodstock Museum in New York, $500,000 for a North Carolina teapot museum, and $273,000 to study Goth culture in Missouri, among others.
Rep. DeLauro says the COVID-19 crisis has forced the House to return to funding the much-maligned pork projects, otherwise known as earmarks: “Members want Congress to help their communities, particularly now as the pandemic exposed so many inequalities and needs,” she said in a statement released by the House Appropriations Committee.
The House started a moratorium on earmarks in 2011, but now Members are coining a new term to refer to earmark spending, pork projects, and “Member-directed spending.”
Rep. DeLauros’ announcement introduced the new euphemism: “Community Project Funding.”
“Community Project Funding will allow Members to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent,” she said.
The newly renamed earmarks will come with a small-sounding set-aside: “no more than 1 percent of discretionary spending,” Rep. DeLauro announced.
Of course, one percent is not so small when Congress designated $1.298 trillion in discretionary spending for FY2021. Setting aside one percent for House appropriation earmarks in fiscal year 2022 would mean earmarks (or, ahem, “community project funding”) could equal $12.98 billion or more.
There’s no telling what amount the Senate might add, and reports are they’re still negotiating on how and if to bring earmarks back. It’s also worth noting this appropriations committee policy will not count toward to transportation and infrastructure bills or those in future emergency spending bills.
But many current members of Congress ran on the promise they would fight exactly the kind of pork barrel spending House Democrats are trying to resurrect.
In one 2014 campaign ad, then-candidate Joni Ernst, now a Republican U.S. Senator from Iowa, talked about castrating hogs on her childhood farm and concluded, “So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork …because Washington’s full of big spenders… Let’s make ’em squeal.”
If noise from Washington’s Republican lobbyists is any indication, it’s likely Ernst will soon be fighting her own party. One former senate staffer, Mark Strand, recently argued that earmarks “can lead to healing.” Strand’s old boss, former Senator Jim Talent (R-MO), was a proponent and frequent user of earmarks.
Senator Ernst and her waste-fighting colleagues argue otherwise: “There’s good reason why earmarks are referred to as pork: They stink, and they’re messy. With the national debt headed toward $30 trillion, the last thing Congress needs to be focused on is finding other ways to waste money.”
Earmarks cross party lines—but not in a good way. Politicians from both sides of the aisle love directing taxpayer funds, and we’ll be seeing much more pork from the House in the coming years.
“Don’t reopen the earmark favor factory” By Adam Andrzejewski & Stephen Moore
“The 10 Most Outrageous Government Boondoggles I Ever Saw” By Sen. Tom Coburn
“Earmarks Won’t Fix the Broken Budget and Appropriations Process,” The Heritage Foundation