Local and community projects funded by tax money allocated by Congress, commonly known as “earmarks,” are often wasteful and conducive to corruption, said the CEO of a government watchdog organization.
An earmark is “a pet project requested by a member of Congress for their own district,” said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of OpenTheBooks.com, an Illinois-based nonprofit watchdog.
The fund allocation for earmarks circumvents the regular appropriations process in Congress, which involves the process of going through committee and subcommittee hearings to include the funding in a budget bill, having a full and public vetting on every line of that legislation, and having voted in those committees all the way along until it reaches the floor, where the bill can be voted up or down, Mr. Andrzejewski explained.
"There's no public purpose to compel, for instance, working and middle class taxpayers in Arkansas to fund a $3 million New York earmark into an Ivy League college like Columbia University, which has a $13.3 billion endowment," he said, providing an example of an earmark.
Earmarked ProjectsFor fiscal year 2023, Congress earmarked nearly $3 million for Columbia University, secured by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), an alumnus of the university, according to a 2023 report (pdf) by OpenTheBooks.com.
Columbia University announced in January that the federal funding would be used to develop a “climate action plan” that defines the potential impact of climate change on the city’s water supply and proposes actions to reduce that impact, according to a statement.
Another example of unnecessary earmarks were funds apportioned for two retiring lawmakers, Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who both sat in powerful leadership positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Andrzejewski said.
Mr. Shelby and Mr. Leahy earmarked millions of dollars to the universities that will house their own personal Senate archives, the report said.
Mr. Leahy earmarked federal funds in the amount of $30 million for the University of Vermont, according to the OpenTheBooks.com report. Moreover, the university renamed its Honors College after the senator, Mr. Andrzejewski said.
Republicans Are Top Earmarkers
Overall, Democrats earmarked $9.1 billion and Republicans $6.4 billion, but congressional Republicans out-earmarked their Democrat colleagues in 21 states, including Texas, with $500 million versus $300 million, and Florida, with $450 million versus $250 million, the report said.
Moreover, seven out of the top 10 earmarkers were Republicans whose projects were worth $3.1 billion in total, Mr. Andrzejewski added.
Even nine members of the Republican Freedom Caucus, who are "known to be the most fiscally conservative,” earmarked 72 projects for nearly $500 million, Mr. Andrzejewski pointed out. “The situation is only getting worse. ... The top 63 earmarkers for 2024 in the House are Republicans.”
Mr. Andrzejewski said earmarks are "the currency of corruption in Congress," and that all earmarks are borrowed against the national debt.
The national debt stood at less than $1 trillion in 1980, a little over 200 years into the Republic, Mr. Andrzejewski said, but today, the debt sits at $32.5 trillion.
“This could be the death knell of a democracy. When a democracy realizes they can vote themselves generous benefits from the Federal Treasury, that’s the first step to collapse," he said.
Mr. Andrzejewski cited words attributed to a Scottish professor in the 19th century, who said that the average lifespan of the world’s greatest civilizations was 200 years, and they started to fall when their legislatures realized they could vote themselves those generous benefits from the public treasury.
“After collapse, the next step is always dictatorship,” Mr. Andrzejewski said, quoting the professor.
“The way to cheat history is through radical transparency—every dime, online, in real-time. Earmarks are a great example of this. We need to hold the powerful accountable."
Republicans claim they want less spending, but they have brought back this earmarking process, Mr. Andrzejewski pointed out.
“Republicans should be doing regular order. They should not be instituting earmarks, which are irregular,” Mr. Andrzejewski said, criticizing the move. "We’re calling on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. No secrets."
“McCarthy needs to call a public vote in the well of the House. We need to see who’s in, who’s out on earmarks,” Mr. Andrzejewski said. “McCarthy doesn’t take earmarks personally, but he allowed the secret vote for the last two years.”
Controversy Around EarmarksEarmarks allow legislators—who well understand the needs of their districts and states—to fund important projects in their locales that solve policy problems, create jobs, and address constituents’ needs, wrote John Hudak, a former Brookings expert and the director of the office of cannabis policy for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, in a 2021 Brookings Institution article.
While acknowledging that abuses in funding earmarks happen, Mr. Hudak said that earmarks account for a minuscule portion of the discretionary budget.
Earmarks are often used to fund projects that should be “state, local, or private responsibilities” and, in many cases, are wasteful, David Ditch, a senior policy analyst at Heritage, wrote in the report.
“Congressional offices are inundated by earmark lobbyists as businesses, local governments, and activist organizations vie for a share of federal loot,” and as a result, earmarks often go to special interest groups, Mr. Ditch wrote.
The 2023 report from Open The Books said that many local infrastructure projects that were initially funded locally received federal funding through earmarks in later phases. Examples include landscaping the road medians in La Mirada, California, the extension of the Michelle Obama trail in Atlanta, and the renovation of a theatre in Dallas.
The report states that “local projects of merit should be funded locally.”