House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has told House Democrats that earmarks are coming back in 2021.
According to Punchbowl News, which originally broke the scoop on earmarks, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Patrick Leahy – Congress’ lead appropriators – are preparing to bring back “member-directed spending” for next fiscal year’s spending bills.
And it looks like 2007 reforms to increase transparency will be included in the new process, as well as additional constraints on how much total spending can be requested and limiting recipients to nonprofits and state and local governments.
Earmarks are synonymous with the corruption and graft that we despise about Congress.
The practice became infamous in the 2000’s with well-known examples like Alaska’s Gravina Island Bridge, or “Bridge to Nowhere,” Jack Abramoff, and the resignation and conviction of former California Rep. Duke Cunningham (who ironically was just pardoned by former President Trump.)
PBS noted that earmarks were used sparingly in Congress until the 1990s. Earmark requests peaked with 14,000 separate provisions in 2005 and a record $29 billion worth of earmarks in 2006. In the “Party, Electoral Vulnerability, and Earmarks in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Jeffrey Lazarus analyzes the relationship between congressional members “electoral vulnerability and the amount of federal spending they procure for their districts,” noting that vulnerable members in the majority received more money than vulnerable members in the minority.
Lazarus research also noted that in a 2008 congressional budget omnibus bill, 98 percent of House members received some kind of earmark, hinting that elections and politics were probably the biggest factors when it came to dolling out earmarks.
In 2007, after beating Republicans on the corruption issue, a new Democrat majority in Congress tried to make the earmark process more transparent by adding public disclosure, limiting earmarks to non-profits and public entities, listing representatives’ names with their earmark requests, and requiring members of Congress to certify that they had no financial interest in their earmark requests.
But Republicans rode the Tea Party wave to power the 2010 Congressional elections and put in place an earmark moratorium upon taking power. It also helped that former President Obama wasn’t a fan of earmarks, either. In his second State of the Union, Obama said he would veto any bill with earmarks.
So, why would Democrats take such a bold, politically perilous move, especially with a razor-thin majority in Congress? The answer is about reasserting congressional spending power after watching the Trump administration set spending priorities, not Congress.
Article I, Section 9 says “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” But presidential administrations continue to find ways to move money without Congress approval or help. An October 2020 study, “Does the Executive Branch Control the Power of the Purse,” by the American Enterprise Institute highlights some of these recent examples like the Trump administration fight to allocate money for the border wall, negotiations over the 2019 government shutdown, and the Obama administration fight over cost-sharing reductions under the Affordable Care Act.
A majority of the executive branch power over federal dollars also sits with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which handles apportioned money to federal agencies and serves as the presidential administration’s budget and policy arm. The AEI report calls OMB the “effective nerve center of the modern executive branch” and is coincidentally the largest office in the executive branch and prepares the president’s budget to Congress.
In a 2018 Politico article about earmarks, Rep. Marcy Kaptur from Ohio said “You just can’t expect somebody over there at OMB, who knows nothing about the areas we represent to have all the knowledge,” in reference to the OMB budget process. Republicans are now echoing the same sentiments with the Biden administration controlling OMB, with one recently saying that they “don’t want unelected bureaucrats in the Biden administration deciding where federal dollars are spent…”
Members of Congress are eager to peel back the executive branch’s budget power. It looks like they have settled on earmarks as the way to do that.
Both parties, and even former President Trump called for more transparency and reforms to the earmarking process. But the whole earmarking process, despite what optimists argue, is rooted in backroom deals and political calculations.
There is little doubt that the return of earmarks will increase the potential for new scandals. Whether Congress will come out better or worse after all is set and done is another matter.
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager.