Plan to Bring Back Earmarks Gaining Steam Among House Democrats

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 31, 2020
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WASHINGTON—Key House Democrats are moving forward with plans to bring back earmarks—taxpayer-funded special interest projects once dubbed “the gateway drug to federal spending addiction”—although Senate Republicans show no signs of easing their opposition to the practice.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) met Jan. 28 with her panel’s subcommittee leaders and a number of members facing tough reelection battles in November to discuss restoring earmarks—rechristened as “community projects”—that were banned by congressional Republicans in 2011.

“Chairwoman Lowey and Appropriations subcommittee chairs had a constructive discussion with a large group of freshmen and other members yesterday afternoon,” a knowledgeable House Democratic aide who spoke on background told The Epoch Times on Jan. 29.

“There is general support for increased congressional involvement in funding community projects and for reforms to ensure public trust in such a process. Conversations on moving forward with community project funding in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills will continue in the coming days,” the aide said.

No fixed rules have been set, but strict guidelines on recipients and the kinds of projects that would be considered are reportedly being discussed.

The current effort has support from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and the restoration has been talked about off and on by members of both parties since the 2011 ban.

Appropriations Committee Benefits

Earmarks were often obscure spending measures buried in congressional appropriations sought by individual senators or representatives for projects in their state or district.

Earmarks have been around for decades but were banned due to multiple scandals in which members of Congress used the measures illegally to benefit campaign donors, friends, and family members. Several House members went to jail for crimes linked to earmarks in the early 2000s.

Members of the congressional appropriations committee were often the biggest beneficiaries of earmarks, according to Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Shatz.

Earmarks were for many years anonymous, but, when names of the sponsors were made public from 2008 to 2011, “the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, representing 15 percent of Congress, got 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money,” Schatz told The Epoch Times.

Romina Boccia, a Heritage Foundation economics analyst, told The Epoch Times that “before the earmark ban, this politically-driven spending was among Congress’ worst excesses, driving up spending, favoring personal agendas over taxpayers’ priorities, breeding corruption, and wasting money.”

It was that waste and corruption that prompted former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to devote much of his senatorial career to ending earmarks because, he said, they rendered members unable to resist voting for increased government expenditures, which he called “federal spending addiction.”

Avoiding Chaos

Democratic campaign strategists interviewed by The Epoch Times were circumspect about the prospect of earmarks returning.

“As a rule of thumb, I am in favor of re-installing earmarks. I would much prefer the elected members of Congress making the spending decisions instead of the unelected bureaucrats of the Trump administration,” said Jim Manley, former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“However, I think it would be better to put this aside until next year, as Democrats don’t need any unnecessary distractions as we work toward keeping the House and defeating Trump.”

Similarly, California-based Democratic strategist Spencer Critchley said, “Which do you prefer, chaos or corruption? As much as people hated the corruption that came along with them, earmarks made a certain kind of order possible by motivating members to compromise.”

The problem, Critchley said, is that “the system may be cleaner without them, but it’s also broken. Since members can afford to be unbending purists, it’s harder to get anything done.”

However, he cautioned, “I don’t think Democrats want to be seen arguing for the return of pork barrel spending, even if the pork is a little less fatty.”

‘Lipstick on a Pig’

Republicans remain adamantly opposed to bringing back earmarks for any reason.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still just a pig,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the Senate’s most prominent foe of wasteful spending, told The Epoch Times on Jan. 29.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters on Jan. 28, “That’s not going anywhere right now.”

Republican strategists and anti-waste advocates interviewed by The Epoch Times were aghast at the prospect of earmarks being revived.

“Well, here we go again. Every couple of years, we see an effort to bring back earmarks,” said Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams.

“Republicans tried this when they were in power in the House. Fortunately, they were quickly criticized for the effort and subsequently dropped the plan. Now, Democrats are trying to bring them back.”

“This shows that earmarks went away … because it was the will of the people and politicians were no longer rewarded for bringing home the bacon. This is becoming like a game of whack-a-mole.”

Equally adamant was Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.

“Earmarks are the broken windows of corruption and overspending. If we don’t stop earmarks, we will never reform the big spending challenges,” he said.

“Earmarks—tax dollars given to a congressman to shower on his political supporters—buy his or her vote for a bill they would otherwise oppose. They are bribes.”

Brian Darling, former counsel to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and founder of Liberty Government Affairs, called earmarks “incumbent protection measures and a means for politicians to show that they can funnel money to the district.”

That earmarks may now be returning “reaffirms that Congress has no will to balance the budget, tackle the debt, or cut any aspects of federal spending,” Darling said.

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc