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The Morning Dispatch: Democrats Bring Earmarks Back
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The Morning Dispatch: Democrats Bring Earmarks Back

Will it provide incentive to pass appropriations bills or instead invite corruption?

Happy Tuesday! Let’s get right to it.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Snow, freezing temperatures, and sweeping power outages have clobbered Texas and Louisiana in recent days as Winter Storm Uri tears through parts of the southern United States. More than 3.6 million Texas households remained without power last night, and at least six people have been hospitalized due to weather-related accidents.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans on Monday to establish “an outside, independent 9/11-type Commission” to probe the “facts and causes” behind the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

  • The World Health Organization granted the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine emergency authorization yesterday, allowing U.N.-backed agencies to disperse the comparatively inexpensive and easy to store vaccine to developing nations around the world.

  • New data from Israel’s mass vaccination program have thus far proven to be consistent with Pfizer clinical trials, showing a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 infections and a 92 percent drop in severe illness among the 600,000 people who received both doses.

  • The United States confirmed 53,235 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.6 percent of the 1,154,871 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 984 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 486,316. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 65,455 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control did not update its vaccine data yesterday.

Democrats to Reinstate Earmarks

In the early aughts, congressional leaders used earmarks—also known as “pork barrel” or “congressionally directed” spending—as a tool to get rank-and-file members on board with yearly appropriations bills. 

The deal-making calculus was simple: In exchange for a particular lawmaker’s vote on a piece of legislation, Appropriations Committee leaders would insert some funding for that lawmaker’s home district—i.e. a fancy new bridge, community center, or post office—into the bill’s fine print.

Until about a decade ago, members of Congress made regular use of the process to deliver tangible results for their constituents at home. See that bridge? I got you that bridge.

But the Tea Party movement of 2009 and 2010 ushered a wave of fiscal austerity into Congress, and House Republicans—led by then-Speaker John Boehner—banned earmarks for the 112th Congress, citing various corruption scandals and growing deficits. “This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington,” Boehner said at the time.

President Obama backed the ban, and eventually got Senate Democrats on board as well. “Earmarks … represent a relatively small part of overall federal spending,” Obama said. “But when it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact.”

In the early months of the Trump administration, some Republican lawmakers sought to revive the practice, leading the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner to label earmarks the “Freddy Krueger” of federal spending. Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan quashed the idea before it gained momentum.

But Democrats have unified control of Washington once again, and earmarks could prove useful to party leaders hoping to wrangle incredibly narrow majorities in both chambers. Yesterday, spokespeople for Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Patrick Leahy—the new chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively—made clear the practice would be returning.

Punchbowl News, which first reported the story in its Monday morning newsletter, laid out how it will look, and what limitations Democrats plan to put in place:

Democrats say they will be transparent and disclose the details of each earmark — who requested it, and which entity would get the money. Members cannot request earmarks for entities to which they have financial ties. And Congress will not allow earmarks for for-profit institutions, such as private companies. Earmarks will be limited to state and local governments and nonprofits that carry out quasi-government functions. There will be limits on how much of each spending bill can be allocated toward earmarks.

The move is not particularly surprising—Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer hinted last November that earmarks would be returning in the new Congress—but it’ll certainly shake things up on Capitol Hill.

Back in December, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played coy as to whether he would support a similar move in the Senate. “I haven’t given any real thought to that,” he told reporters. “That’s a decision obviously the majority has decided to make over there and it’ll be interesting to see how the Republicans in the House respond to it.”

Although he eventually came around to supporting it, McConnell initially resisted the earmark ban back in 2010, citing the small percentage of the overall budget earmarks make up and their role in asserting congressional authority over the executive branch. Earmarks, he said at the time, are “about an argument between the executive branch and the legislative branch over how funds should be spent.”

Congressional “pork” may have only made up about 1 percent of the federal budget in any given year, but a series of high-profile scandals and controversies in the mid-to-late aughts rendered earmarks politically toxic. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham—whom President Trump pardoned last month—received an eight-year prison sentence in 2006 for accepting bribes from military contractors and, in turn, directing taxpayer money their way through government contracts. Federal agents raided a defense lobbying firm and a defense contracting firm in 2009 that had received more than $100 million in earmarked funds from former Rep. John Murtha.

Less scandalous but more famous, perhaps, was Alaska Rep. Don Young’s “Bridge to Nowhere”—an earmark awarded in 2005 worth hundreds of millions of dollars intended to build a bridge connecting the city of Ketchikan to a local airport.

Upon taking control of Congress in 2007, Democrats partially reformed the earmark process, requiring members to disclose any pork requests and pledge they had no financial ties to any earmark recipient. Earmarks were also prevented from going to private sector, for-profit businesses.

This wasn’t enough for Tea Party-era Republicans, who banned the practice entirely four years later in hopes of restoring transparency and fiscal responsibility to the halls of Congress.

“We thought that if members of Congress were not simply voting for a spending package because they got a few small provisions locally, they would put more focus on the overall bill and what it means instead of in such narrow terms,” said Brendan Buck, who served as a spokesman for former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.*

But now that the practice is prohibited, the incentive to push giant spending bills through Congress is greatly diminished. “Lacking that motivation to vote for a bill for your parochial interest has left Congress completely unable to pass appropriations bills in any normal process,” Buck added. “Instead of voting for something that they want, everybody is now finding things that they don’t like as an excuse to vote ‘No’—at least on the Republican side.”

Michael Steel, another former Boehner aide, remains adamantly opposed to bringing earmarks back, arguing they pressure lawmakers to support bills they would otherwise vote against. “[Oklahoma] Sen. Tom Coburn used to say they were sort of a ‘gateway drug’ to voting for higher government spending, because if you wanted your earmarks, you had to vote for the overall bill, no matter if you were concerned about the level of spending in that overall bill or not,” Steel said. “So it made it impossible for fiscal hawks to hold the line on spending.”

A former GOP leadership aide argued earmarks can be a double-edged sword. “On the one hand, our debt is out of control and deficits are at historic levels,” he said.“On the other hand, earmarks aren’t driving the debt, so if the choice is between faceless bureaucrats at agencies directing the funds or members of Congress who actually know the needs of their states and districts directing the funds, legislators are better suited to the task.”

House Republican rules, at least for now, bar GOP members from “request[ing] a congressional earmark, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit.”

One thing is for certain: Reinstating earmarks will be a huge boon for the appropriations lobbying industry. “It was quite common for local and state governments to pay very large sums of taxpayer money for lobbyists to get an earmark,” Buck said. “Earmark season was something that took weeks, months of people’s time and preparation in staff offices. And when there’s that much attention being placed on a process in a congressional office, there’s going to be lobbying going on to influence that.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that while “there is no question former President Trump bears moral responsibility” for the assault on the Capitol January 6, given “the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone,” senators’ first duty is to the Constitution. McConnell acknowledges that many “brilliant” constitutional scholars believe it’s permissible  to convict onetime officeholders even after they’ve left their office, others don’t—and McConnell agrees with the latter. To rush a trial before Trump left office, he insists, would have made a mockery of the processes and norms that Trump critics held sacrosanct when they frequently criticized the former president’s behavior.

  • It’s one thing to understand at a conceptual level the online forces and psychological needs that have led so many Americans to embrace cultlike conspiracy theories such as QAnon in recent years. It’s another to read the stories of those caught in the wreckage of the lives of those who have poured themselves into these communities, becoming increasingly dead to the real world in the process. This crushing Huffington Post profile tells the stories of several (adult) children of QAnon devotees, and the damage these online fictions have done to their families: “It’s hard to even talk about this because it’s just so ridiculous. You don’t want to believe that someone you love is this disconnected from reality.” 

  • During the Trump era, evangelical writer and radio host Eric Metaxas underwent a slow metamorphosis from thoughtful critic and writer to bomb-throwing #MAGA superfan, eventually becoming one of the most prominent evangelical voices in the “Stop the Steal” movement. The Atlantic’s Emma Green caught up with Metaxas for an interview this week, offering a glimpse of the sort of mental calisthenics required to hold such seemingly incompatible positions at once: “I think it’s very possible [Trump] was reelected, yeah. And that sickens me, that I could even think that … A lot of courts didn’t look at the evidence, because they made a call, which was actually a political call, to say, ‘We just don’t want to stick our necks out like this.’” But what about the Trump-appointed judges who rejected the notion that such evidence existed? “I’m not the sort of person who followed this the way you did. Most Americans have less time to follow it than I did. And so if there is the impression that some of what I’m saying is true, people need to deal with that. In America, we don’t push that stuff aside.” 

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Supreme Court on Thursday granted Alabama death row inmate Willie Smith’s request to have his pastor present at his execution, rejecting the state’s claim that having a spiritual adviser present would interfere with prison security. Tune in to the latest episode of Advisory Opinions for a discussion about how the Supreme Court’s religious liberty ruling in Dunn v. Smith might affect future death penalty cases. David and Sarah also chat about Yuval Levin’s latest piece in National Review on the sorry state of Congress and the New York Times’ 2020 Hulu documentary about Britney Spears.

  • In this week’s Uphill, Haley breaks down the aftermath of Trump’s second acquittal and looks at the possibility of an independent commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol. She then dives into the weeds of a regular congressional squabble that may rear its head again this year: whether America should revise or revoke the early-2000s authorizations for the use of military force that have governed various U.S. military operations around the globe for the past two decades. The authorizations have been stretched far beyond their original scope, but many lawmakers find it easier to keep kicking the can down the road: “Members of Congress don’t particularly want to have to take an affirmative vote authorizing military force. As with many policy areas, especially one as controversial as this, many in the legislative branch would rather leave these questions up to the president.” 

Let Us Know

Earmarks: A recipe for profligate spending or a necessary incentive structure in a gridlocked legislature?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Correction, February 16, 2021: The former aide to Speakers Boehner and Ryan cited here is Brendan Buck, not Brandon.