Lewis Morris / March 4, 2021

The Return of Earmarks

Pork-barrel spending never really went away, but Democrats are brashly bringing back more.

Congressional Democrats are planning to bring back earmarks, and they seem convinced that Republicans will go along with their plan. Cleverly taking advantage of the public’s addiction to massive government “relief” spending to combat the COVID pandemic (read: gifts to Democrat constituencies), the House Appropriations Committee has released a plan to revive the sketchy practice banned in 2011.

Earmarks are provisions written into legislation that direct specific amounts of federal spending to certain projects. It is simply pork-barrel spending by another name, and earmarks tucked into massive bills rarely have anything to do with the focus of the bill itself. The practice has stirred controversy since the very first federal budget was passed in 1789, but it became the target of public derision in the early 2000s. The infamous “bridge to nowhere” and other boondoggles made earmarks a dirty word. Congress was shamed into changing its ways and tightening up spending.

Just kidding. Nothing of that kind ever happened. It’s true that earmarks were banned by congressional Republicans, and then-President Barack Obama promised to veto any spending bill containing earmarks. But spending, including on wasteful pet projects, continued to skyrocket. And thanks to several trillion-dollar-plus COVID relief packages, the national debt is fast approaching $30 trillion.

Few seem to be troubled by the runaway spending, though, and that’s what Democrats are counting on. Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro is trying to dress up the return of earmarks by claiming that each representative will be allowed 10 earmark requests, but members will have to prove that whatever project being funded has community support and is no way tied to the “financial interest” of the member. All earmarks must be transparent, and the sum total of earmarks passed in a bill cannot exceed 1% of all discretionary spending.

This sounds impressive, but it means nothing. Community support really only means 50% plus one of any given district’s constituents. And politicians and the media are masters at manufacturing support where none exists, so saying that a project has community support is not always accurate. Defining financial interest is also tricky. Any cash or project that a member of Congress brings home to their district is of interest because it brings them one step closer to reelection. They don’t have to necessarily profit from an earmark in a fiduciary sense to gain political benefit from it.

The claim of transparency must be a flat-out joke. Earmarks were never really hidden in spending bills. Congress just counted on them being buried so deep in the wording that they would never be found. And they were largely right. Very few people, including many representatives who vote on these bills, ever actually read them. Unless one is specifically looking for a three-line spending item buried in a several-hundred-page bill, it’s unlikely they will ever see it.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a longtime champion of earmarks, is counting on the public’s addiction to “free” stuff from the government to make earmarks great again. Several Republicans, including Jim Jordan and Warren Davidson of Ohio, are against the idea. Davidson called earmarks “a gateway drug toward corruption.”

One of the arguments for earmarks claims that total earmark spending is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the overall federal budget. This is the mentality that has gotten the federal government into trouble in the first place. Saying “It’s only a little bit more money; it won’t matter much” is a poor way to manage money. It goes along with the mistaken belief that spending cuts aren’t worthwhile unless they are massive and immediate — and we all know how well that works out. Embracing an all-or-nothing view of spending is not how budgets are supposed to be managed.

Democrats have seized and held power by buying the support of the citizenry. For them, the return of earmarks is the next step in the quest for even more power. Regardless of its total impact on spending in any given year, the practice should be rejected, or it will surely lead to a progressively worse fiscal future for the country.

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