Regulatory Policy

Earmarks Are Corrupt, Costly, and Inequitable

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Just take a look at the sprawling COVID-response bill that Democrats are fast-tracking through Congress.

Congress isn’t even waiting to lift the decade-long moratorium on earmarking before starting to pig out.

Look no further than the $1.9 trillion bill being touted by Democrats as the latest response to the COVID pandemic — a proposal that’s being fast-tracked through both chambers. Tucked within its nearly 600 pages are a number of pet projects — also known as “earmarks” — that have absolutely nothing to do with COVID. Take, for example, the $1.5 million set aside for a bridge connecting New York and Canada. Elsewhere you will find a cleverly worded provision that earmarks $140 million for a subway from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. These projects will benefit the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House.

This is precisely how earmarking works. Secret spending is dropped into a “must-pass” bill at the behest of powerful politicians and is typically totally unrelated to the merits of the project or the purpose of the legislation.

House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) claim that earmarks will be restored with more transparency and limitations on where the money can be directed. But putting lipstick on earmarks does not prevent them from being good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending and the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practice in the history of Congress.

Earmarking — by design — will never be transparent. Unlike the federal grant-making process, there is no standard for competition for the grants, and taxpayers have no ability to examine how the money was doled out. Earmarking is quite literally decided in secret. More insidiously, decisions about who gets earmarks and who doesn’t are usually treated as a form of political reward for the well-connected or as punishment for those who don’t follow the party line.

Convicted super lobbyist Jack Abramoff affectionately referred to it as the congressional “favor factory.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the return of earmarks has been most celebrated by Washington lobbyists who know the practice will be a boon to their business.

Supporters of earmarks — a.k.a., “earmarxists” — argue that they represent a small amount of money. According to Citizens Against Government Waste’s (CAGW) Congressional Pig Book, the most spent on earmarks in one year was $29 billion, which represented 1 percent of total discretionary spending. Only in Washington, D.C., would someone try to convince you with a straight face that $29 billion is a small amount of money. This diverts from the true reason that members of Congress want to restore earmarks: power and control.

Frankly, Congress does not need any new incentives to spend money given the total spent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could soon reach more than $5.7 trillion. Yes, you read that correctly. And the latest bill was passed by the House even though $1 trillion of the prior relief funds has not yet been spent.

The earmarks process is also inherently inequitable. When members of Congress were required to add their names to the earmarks they received, taxpayers were able to see that the 81 members of the House and Senate appropriations committees received 51 percent of the money and 61 percent of the earmarks.

CAGW’s earmark database contains 111,114 earmarks that have cost taxpayers $375.7 billion since the first Pig Book was released. A few of them merit special recognition, including $3.8 million to conserve Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Mich.; $1 million for a Woodstock museum in Bethel, N.Y.; $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, N.C.; and $273,000 to study Goth culture in Blue Springs, Mo. And, perhaps the most infamous earmark of all: the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. What’s even worse? None of these pricey pet projects were even completed.

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.

Joni Ernst is a Republican senator from Iowa, and Tom Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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