The Proliferation of Executive Branch Earmarks

David Williams

August 6, 2012

Back in December of 2011, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance uncovered earmarks in the Defense Appropriations Bill (read here) despite Congress’s self-imposed earmark moratorium.  That is disconcerting news for people who thought that earmarks were a thing of the past. Even though the practice of congressional earmarking has tapered off, there is a new kind of earmark that needs scrutiny, executive branch (President and agency) earmarks and they are picking up right where Congress left off. 

It’s true that the Constitution grants Congress the unique power of the purse, but that doesn’t mean Congress won’t give the administration significant discretion when it comes to doling out money.  In fact, often times the greater the amount of wiggle room a member provides to agencies is directly correlated with the amount of money that agencies will end up putting in the member’s district.  The member of Congress certainly benefits from this arrangement because it serves the purpose of bringing tax dollars to their district.  Best of all, because the administration is the one that technically hands out the money the member of Congress is conveniently exonerated from any accusation that these grants come as earmarks that has been orchestrated by the member of Congress. 

This relationship is also advantageous for the President because by providing grants to a particular member’s district, the member becomes indebted to him and will likely support future legislation pushed by the President.

In a recent segment from Jamie Dupree’s Washington Insider, he highlighted the improper and excessive amount of federal funding that is making its way out as executive branch earmarks.  Dupree points out that the reason why you haven’t heard more about this is because unlike congressional allocations “it is extraordinarily difficult to develop a list of how various federal departments hand out big chunks of money.”  This means that it is significantly more difficult and frustrating to see who is putting money where, to fund what and why.

For unlike Congress, there’s little insight or accountability for the way the executive branch chooses to dispense grant money.  Regardless of whether a Member of Congress or an executive agency is the one to ultimately dole out your taxpayer money on a non-competitive basis, at best it goes to a wasteful project that the government has no place in funding or creating.  At worst, this practice irresponsibly allows your hard-earned money to be used as a way to influence voters and secure votes.  In his piece, Dupree offers the example of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) who with pride provided a list of grants totaling $57 million that was awarded to his district.  While some may say that figure is only a drop in the bucket compared to our national debt, that $57 million is still too much and will inevitably lead to more in other districts as members of Congress demand their “fair share” of the pie.

Earmarks have become like that carnival game “Whack-A-Mole.”  Once we curb earmarks from one branch of government, they pop up somewhere else.