At their retreat last week in Philadelphia House Democrats called on Americans to make shared sacrifices to protect democracy. Congress itself, however, got a waiver. After an 11-year moratorium, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to restart what disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called the “earmark favor factory.” Pork barrel politics is back.
The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill President Biden signed into law includes more than 5,000 pork projects worth $9.7 billion. That’s less than the 2006 peak, when Congress funded nearly 16,000 earmarks, but close to the early 2000s levels when Abramoff was in his prime. Projects include critical national priorities like $1.6 million for the “equitable growth of shellfish aquaculture” in Rhode Island, $800,000 for “artist lofts” in California, and $1.5 million for improvements at St. George Theater in New York.
In 2011, my former boss, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), and other reformers like Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) helped impose the ban after fighting the practice since the 1990s.
We argued earmarks were a “gateway drug” not just to overspending but to “earmarxism”—the creeping normalization of top-down, command-and-control authoritarianism in American politics. A few billion dollars in a bill appropriating more than $1 trillion might not seem like much, but earmarks shift the balance of power from taxpayers, free people, and free enterprise to politicians and special interests, and made critically needed reforms in other areas like entitlements more difficult to achieve. We hoped the ban would be just the first stop in an incremental island-hopping strategy to restore constitutional limits on federal power.
Even President Barack Obama acknowledged the moral clarity of our case and gave credibility to our cause. In his 2011 State of the Union speech, he said, “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.”
For a brief time, the earmark ban appeared to be working as intended. Overall federal spending (a fair barometer of Washington’s power) decreased two years in a row (2012 and 2013) for the first time since the end of the Korean War. Yet the Simpson-Bowles commission, which was created in 2010 after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, failed to achieve a breakthrough on entitlement reform, which was our endgame.
Reformers understood that Congress almost immediately tried to circumvent the ban through slush funds and “phone-marking” (earmarking without a paper trail). Yet the lengths to which politicians were going to hide their efforts from taxpayers proved our point—that earmarks were an inherently sleazy practice that existed to serve politicians and special interests rather than the common good. The secrecy and shell games at least achieved some measure of containment.
Sure, the usually silent and secretive earmark-happy majority in Congress periodically attempted to weaken and overturn the ban formally, but reformers like former House Speaker Paul Ryan resisted. Unfortunately, the authoritarians on both sides caught a break in 2018 when former President Donald Trump said at a White House meeting while flanked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), “maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”
Democrats and Republicans heard the message loud and clear. Today, the ear mark proponents are now offering the same arguments voters soundly rejected when they elected candidates aligned with the Tea Party in 2010.
James Dyer, the former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill, “To say congressmen or senators have no right to earmark funds is to extract elected officials from the flow of legislation that should exist between state and local people who identify needs at the local level and then federal people who have the resources to meet those needs. People who are against these things are living in the past.”
The constitutional argument made by Dyer about the blank check “rights” of the members of Congress to spend money as they desire is as odd now as it was then. Pork projects send federal tax dollars to specific districts, to curry support from lawmakers. But such allocations are the job of state and local governments. Federalism 101 tells us the federal government isn’t supposed to micromanage every dimension of our lives. Oftentimes, smarter regulation and less regulation is the best policy.
The earmark frenzy didn’t exist until the 1990s and went crazy in the 2000s. President Reagan famously vetoed and ridiculed a highway bill in 1987 that contained a mere 121 earmarks. Reagan quipped, “I haven’t seen this much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” By 1994, there were 4,000 earmarks, and that quadrupled to 16,000 in 2006 at its peak.
The Founders anticipated and warned against attempts to misuse the power of the purse. Thomas Jefferson, in a 1796 letter to James Madison, spoke directly against federally funded local projects: “[I]t will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.”
President James Monroe echoed Jefferson in 1822: “The power [of the purse] should be confined to great national works only, since if it were unlimited it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil.”
James Madison said very clearly that the Constitution didn’t give Congress a blank check: “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
Today earmark proponents have done some rebranding work. They insist these projects aren’t special interest giveaways but instead “congressionally directed spending.”
But what federal spending is not congressionally directed? Earmark proponents often complain about bureaucracy and the executive branch making too many decisions, but this is dishonest and misleading. Members of Congress are not helpless victims in the face of a bureaucracy over which they alone have total budgetary control.
The problem in Washington is not “non congressionally directed spending” which does not exist. The problem is poorly directed spending. Blaming the bureaucracy for bad outcomes is like a losing head coach blaming his players for following his game plan.Poorly directed spending is a problem solved by oversight, turnover, and limiting Congress’ engagement in areas where it has no legitimate role or expertise. Earmarks are not a solution; they are a form of even more poorly directed spending.
Before the ban, we also convinced members and the public that earmarks do more harm than good, and that merit-based spending is vastly better for society than member-based spending. The Bush administration’s Department of Transportation found that earmarks divert funds from higher priority projects (i.e. preventing bridge collapses) while a 2009 Harvard study found that congressional districts that receive a disproportionate share of earmarks suffer economically.
Allocating scarce taxpayer dollars on the basis of merit, expertise, science and competition requires careful legislating and hard work, whereas earmarks empower members to believe they are experts in areas where they are not. How long will it be before members who care about an issue like climate change, for instance, realize that empowering Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology isn’t a great strategy? Do we really want Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) to tell us how to achieve nuclear fusion? With the power to earmark members become little oligarchs but without the business acumen. They pick losers and punish winners. Earmarks become expensive toys that are hard to take away.
Sen. Dick Durbin’s attempt to become a clean energy venture capitalist is one cautionary tale. For years, Durbin championed the biggest earmark in American history, called “FutureGen,” for a cleaner coal plant utilizing carbon capture technology in his home state of Illinois. Yet, the Clean Air Task Force called the troubled $1 billion project, “YesterGen.” The Bush and Obama administrations each had to kill the project Durbin couldn’t let die.
Carbon capture is an incredibly exciting and promising technology but Congress’ ability to make it happen through earmarks is not.
Today’s members of Congress are in for a very rude awakening if they buy the conventional wisdom that earmarks are a political winner. Just ask the dozens of incumbents, including senior appropriators who were primaried, defeated, or retired early due to Tea Party challengers. Taxpayers don’t like their self-determination (and earnings) being violated. Earmarks become easy targets for watchdog groups and primary challengers.
Earmark opponents did achieve a moral victory of sorts last week. Sen. Mike Braun called the omnibus spending bill a disgrace and offered an amendment to strip the earmarks. Braun’s amendment fell short, garnering 35 votes. But that was more than double Coburn’s tally when he attempted to strip funding for the Bridge to Nowhere in 2005. We lost that vote 82-15.
There is no shortage of causes members of Congress insist they “care” about. All an enterprising member has to do is file “fund this or that” amendments that pit largesse against priorities like border security, veterans, health care, climate change and fill-in-the-blank. Lawmakers like Braun who target individual earmarks and force members to make public choices between competing priorities can become taxpayer heroes.
This is what Coburn did with the Bridge to Nowhere. He didn’t just name names and try to take away Sen. Ted Stevens’ earmark; he forced every senator to choose between spending $223 million on the Bridge to Nowhere and repairing a bridge that had just been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He put the earmark culture on trial repeatedly and shamed and disgraced the chamber when it made the wrong choice. Even the wily Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) relented and killed earmarks.
After the 2010 election, McConnell said on the Senate floor:
“I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.
“Make no mistake. I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them. But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight. And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government.
“That’s why today I am announcing that I will join the Republican Leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress.”
Last week, McConnell voted to resurrect earmarks. Yet, with enough political pressure, McConnell and future leaders will relent again.
There is good reason to hope another battle over earmarks will lead to lasting and broader reforms. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be a generational wakeup call that is happening at the same time as a generational inflation. Both crises could get much worse before they get better. Big events like 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2007-2008 don’t guarantee macro-level reform but they do foster sobriety.
The defining choice for the United States and the West for the foreseeable future is whether we will respond to authoritarian challenges from Russia and China with authoritarian-lite responses—less expensive and less onerous command and control policies—or whether we will recommit ourselves to political and economic freedom. At best, earmarks are an unserious response to serious challenges. At worst, they project weakness and foster economic decay and corruption when our adversaries need to see strength. In either case, earmarks don’t fit today’s Zeitgeist. Politicians, not people, are asking for their return.
At a time when Congress often degenerates into what Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) aptly calls “performative jackassery,” an intellectually honest fight over earmarks could be a purposeful, principled and redemptive exercise. It could unite the “often Trump” and “after Trump” wings of the GOP who are genuinely concerned about government overreach and the administrative state and wish Trump had done more to “drain the swamp.”
Congress is giving reformers plenty of fresh ammo beyond questionable projects. Braun’s office informs me the Appropriations Committee staff sent over an unsearchable PDF of projects so they could avoid scrutiny while checking the “transparency” box. Appropriators played this exact game before and paid a heavy price. Braun’s staff also notes that members have started taking down their financial disclosure letters connected to earmark requests. This one from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) is now missing, along with requests from dozens of other members.
If reformers lean into this fight, they’ll discover that taxpayers don’t view earmarks as a green eyeshade accounting numbers game but a matter of personal freedom. Taxpayers will resent the authoritarian secrecy of the process and the political irredentism, the belief that Congress has a right to lost budgetary territory it previously held. In short, earmarks represent everything normal people don’t like about Washington.
John Hart, who served as U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s longtime communications director and co-author, is the co-founder of the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions.