Will Earmarks Make A Comeback, Or Have They Already?

Michi Iljazi

April 25, 2014

United States Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)

We all remember pork-barrel earmarks.  Those pesky little projects that members of Congress snuck into spending bills to try and curry favor back home. Earmarks in the past have included $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa; $500,00 for a teapot museum in Sparta, North Carolina; and $100,000 to the Tiger Woods Foundation.  Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) categorized earamrks as “the gateway drug to spending addiction in Congress because they encourage members of Congress to vote for bloated bills they would otherwise oppose. Earmarks also waste money outright, contrary to the views of many members.”  Responding to voter pressure, Congress instituted transparency rules for earmarks starting in 2008 and then in 2010, the House and Senate agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks.  The moratorium was extended and most earmarks disappeared, except for the Defense spending bill.  In fact, TPA uncovered 186 earmarks worth $7 billion (click here to see the full list) in the Defense Appropriations Bill that was part of H.R. 3547, the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, aka the Omnibus appropriations bill.

Now, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is calling for the full reinstatement of the earmark process in the halls of Congress. Senator Durbin wants to officially bring back the practice of inserting pet projects into bills in order to make it easier for members to vote in favor of legislation. Speaking on this last week, the Illinois Senator made the case for a return to an earmark-laden legislative process by using the example of the massive transportation bill:

“And what they did was take the glue out of a federal transportation bill. That was the glue that held everybody together, Democrats and Republicans, working for a common goal.”

Senator Durbin said he has spoken to President Obama and the Administration regarding his idea.  If the President agrees to lift the ban, it would be another broken promise from the Obama Administration. In his 2011 State of the Union Speech, the President reaffirmed his opposition to earmarks: “And because 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.”

Another problem for Senator Durbin is that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) appears to have zero interest in what Durbin’s attempt to bring back earmarks. Tweeting to the Senator on April 21, the Speaker flatly rejected the idea of brining back earmarks noting that the ban “has helped us cut waste & restore transparency. It stays.”  That may be an overstatement by the Speaker but we appreciate him holding strong against earmarks.

The good news here is that Senator Durbin’s pleas appear to be falling apart. The leader of the House and the President of the United States appear to want nothing to do with getting rid of the ban on earmarks that has been in place now for a few years. So even if the Senator were to convince the colleagues in his own chamber, it’s unlikely to go any further than that, hopefully.  But the issue actually is still somewhat of a problem when you look at the maneuvering Congress has done in order to get around the ban on earmarks. Shortly after the ban was imposed, Raymond Hernandez of the New York Times detailed how lawmakers were getting around the ban:

Congress pledged to usher in a new way of doing business in recent months when it banned earmarks, the widely criticized provisions that lawmakers insert into huge federal budget bills to pay for pet projects back home without much, if any, public oversight. The ban was one of the promises made by a newly elected class of conservatives in the House.

But, as it turns out, lawmakers still have a way to get their favorite projects funded: appealing directly to federal agencies for money that is already available. And agency officials seem to be paying attention, though an executive order has directed agencies not to take on projects based on the recommendations of members of Congress. In some cases, that may be the result of the clout certain lawmakers have over how much money an agency receives.

TPA is hopeful the push to lift the ban will go nowhere fast, but it is important to note that those looking to bring the old ways of earmarks back are using a tactic that could resonate with the public: political gridlock. The argument that Washington is at a standstill with debt ceiling fights and government could be a convincing ploy to some observers.  Ironically, the proliferation of earmarks and excessive spending were the root causes of those fights and political gridlock.  It is tough to see that MORE spending would be the answer.

There is no doubt that there are members of Congress who want to bring back earmarks and Sen. Durbin’s remarks may be a way to see if it is time to do so.  Though earmarks are not officially out of the way, the ban has helped in signifficantly reducing earmarks and lifting that ban is something that would cost taxpayers and harm any hopes of reducing spending in a meaningful way.