Can Revamped Earmarks Stop Gridlock in Congress?

In the late months of 2020, House and Senate Democrats signaled the return of earmarks, reversing a decade-long moratorium on the practice. Since then, there have been many discussions debating whether this is the right call, especially during such a polarized era of Congress. But what are earmarks? Why were they banned? And what does their reintroduction mean?

When Congress approves federal funding, the money generally gets passed to the appropriate government agency (Department of Interior, Department of Justice, etc.), and the funds would be directed from there. The only exception to this is an earmark. The term earmark originated from a word used by old English farmers when marking their livestock’s ears to help differentiate them from other livestock. Today the word is political jargon for federal funds that have been directed or restricted by Congress through appropriations bills. Earmarks are traditionally used to give specific projects funding, and give Congress some power over the executive branch on budgets. Earmarks have also been used as a sort of “bait”, where lawmakers exchange a vote on a resolution for an earmark that gives funding for a project. A typical earmark would be like when $20,000 was reserved for the Evergreen-Conecuh Public Library in the 2001–2002 appropriations for the Departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services; they’re usually fairly reasonable, and low profile. However, there have been a few instances where earmarks have caused tremendous controversy and contributed to its demise.

In autumn 2005, two abhorrent scandals rocked the nation, both shedding a bad light on the practice of earmarks. After the horrific effects of Hurricane Katrina, which essentially annihilated the infrastructure of Southern Louisiana, many lawmakers were attempting to find ways to provide additional aid to the region. One such lawmaker was Representative Tom Coleburn (R-Okla.) who, after reviewing the 2006 Appropriation Bill, proposed moving funds from an earmarked project called the Gravina Island Bridge towards repairs for the damaged Lake Pontrachain Bridge. The Gravina Island Bridge was a proposal that would’ve connected the city of Ketchikan, Alaska, to neighboring Gravina Island, which housed Ketchikan International Airport and around 50 residents via two bridges. Numerous local Alaskan politicians from U.S Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) to Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) strongly supported the bridge, believing it would benefit the town’s economy. So, when Coleburn’s amendment was proposed, many Alaskan politicians were enraged. The Coburn Amendment was eventually defeated by a landslide vote of 15–82, however; the incident became a heavy point of criticism for earmarks, and the practice became an easy target for wasteful government spending. At around the same time, Representative Randy ‘’Duke’’ Cunningham (R-Calif.) was caught accepting bribes from defense contractors in return for earmarks. Similarly, earmarks were again under heavy criticism, with anti-earmarks groups and politicians using this incident as proof the practice also led to corruption.

In 2008, the global economy crashed, causing millions of Americans to lose their funds and savings. Consequently, the practice of earmarks was called into deeper question, as the federal government raced to turn around the economy and conserve the budget. The recession also gave birth to the Tea Party Movement, a group of solidly conservative Republicans, dedicated to maintaining extreme fiscal responsibility. The Tea Party’s rise in the Republican party would be the first nail in the coffin for earmarks, as the Republican party was now in talks of banning the practice for their lawmakers.

At the turn of the decade, House and Senate Republicans established party rules that banned the use of earmarks from all Republican drafted legislation. Additionally, Democrats were beginning to receive intense pressure from not only Republicans, but also other Democrats, to ban earmarks. Then, in the first weeks of 2011, President Obama vowed to veto any bill that contained any earmarks at the State of the Union Address, giving lawmakers even more incentive to end the use of earmarks. Thus, a few weeks later, Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a historically strong proponent of earmarks and the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced that his Appropriations committee would be enforcing the ban on earmarks. The final nail in the coffin for earmarks. (Note the Appropriations committee is responsible for appropriating bills dealing with the expenditure of federal funds)

“The handwriting is clearly on the wall. The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them. Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law.”- Frmr. Senator Daniel K. Inouye [D-Hawaii]

In the years following the moratorium on earmarks, a couple lawmakers began complaining that the suspension halted legislative progress and prevented them from satisfying constituents. Both parties began going through complex loopholes to add in technical earmarks into bills, essentially worsening the overall problem. Consequently, around 2015–2016, Representatives Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), John Culberson (R-Texas), and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) proposed reintroducing modified earmarks that would only give funding to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation projects. However, then-Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) halted the proposal, believing that reintroduction would contradict the Republicans’ message of “draining the swamp” during the recent 2016 elections (since earmarks were associated with corruption in Washington). Instead, Ryan decided to task Chairman of the House Committee on Rules, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), with reinstating earmarks. However, Sessions was unable to bring them back before the 2018 midterm elections, where numerous Republicans, including Sessions himself, were overthrown by Democratic rivals.

“[Without earmarks] you can’t do jack s — — for your constituents.”-Frmr. Representative Tom Rooney (R-Fla.)

Fast forward two years, Democrats were able to hold on to their House majority and reclaim the Presidency in the 2020 Elections. They also narrowly received a majority in the Senate, allowing to control all chambers of Congress plus the Presidency. Thus, Democrats began proposing new rules, one of which was reintroducing earmarks (now coined as “community project funding”). In these new versions of earmarks established by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Chairwoman of the House Committee of Appropriations, new requirements were created to ease any fears of any corruption or overspending. These rules included: requiring all requests be made online, ensuring that members and their families had no financial interest on earmarked projects, limiting earmark requests to ten per member, capping the amount of money spent on projects to 1% on discretionary spending, etc. While most Democrats were satisfied with these modified earmarks, Republicans were divided on the issue. Some such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) embraced the reintroduction, saying that “with the changes with transparency…I think that’s a fair approach.” On the other hand, Republicans such as those in the Tea Party Caucus expressed strong disagreement to the move, claiming it’ll usher in larger budget deficits and corruption. In addition, Senate Republicans have expressed little interest in bringing back earmarks. In fact, an opposite reaction has happened, with a group of Republicans led by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) proposing a bill to permanently ban earmarks from Congress. Nevertheless, House Republicans did approve reversing bans on earmarks via secret ballot, on March 17th, 2021, and the House in general seems to be moving forward with the idea.

If earmarks do get approved by Congress what effect will it have? Democrats are eager to reintroduce earmarks as a method to gain Republican support and ensure that their agenda can be pushed through Congress while they have a slim majority in Congress, not to mention the use of earmarks could circumvent the need to reform the filibuster. Pro-Earmark Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) believe earmarks will allow Republicans to have more say in where funding goes and limit the amount of funding the Biden administration can control. Earmark critics still believe that earmarks will allow for bills to continue to grow creating an environment of overspending and encourage votes on unpopular bills just for the earmarks. Once the door opens, the fear is that restrictions will loosen and pave the way for corruption and overspending like has happened in the past.

So where does that leave us? If Congress does allow this version of earmarks we can expect more bipartisanship in Washington and more diverse voting records. With lawmakers being enticed to vote for bills to benefit their respective district, more bills will become law and overall Congress will be more productive. We can expect these new earmarks to be more transparent and reasonable, as earmarks requests will be clearly displayed and therefore knowingly put into a bill as stated by the rules set by the House Appropriations Committee. Finally, we can anticipate some Republicans taking advantage of earmarks and actively participating in the budget bills, attempting to direct some funding away from the hands of the Biden Administration and more in favor towards their own agendas. However, there could be a few of the aforementioned consequences of earmarks that people have warned about, such as corruption or wasteful spending. Ultimately, Congress and the American people will just have to wait and see if reintroducing earmarks was worth it.

First, let’s analyze why the Democrats are eager to reintroduce earmarks. Since controlling the executive and legislative branches, Democrats have been riding the ‘victory bus’ from the 2020 elections. Unfortunately for Democrats, their wins were all extremely narrow, with Democrats having a slim majority in the House (especially with Biden pulling a few members for his Cabinet), barely having a majority in the Senate with a 50–50 party composition, and having a Presidency that has been met with deep division. The Democrats currently need Republicans to pass any sort of legislation, which is where earmarks come in handy. If Democrats can promise a couple Republicans earmarks on certain bills, it could help them receive more votes and pass more legislation. Using the earmarks could even circumvent the need to reform the filibuster if earmarks go to plan, a win-win scenario for the Democrats..

“[Banning Earmarks] may have done more harm than good when it comes to bipartisanship,”- Bipartisan Policy Center

Next, let’s look at where pro-earmark Republicans are coming from. Republicans have just suffered blowing defeats from 2020 Elections, with the party losing both chambers of Congress and the Presidency. For now, they are resorting to stubborn tactics, such as the filibuster, to prevent the Democrats’ agenda from getting signed into law. However, with talk of earmarks returning, many Republicans, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have seized on the opportunity to give Republicans more say for where funding is going and limit the amount of funding the Biden Administration can control. Additionally, many Republican and conservatives groups have recognized that earmarks didn’t actually add much to the federal budget deficit and corruption cases were infrequent, leading them to accept earmarks once again.

Lastly, let’s understand the perspective of anti-earmark lawmakers. While many anti-earmark Republicans do understand the perspective of their pro-earmark counterparts, many still insist that their reintroduction will lead to serious consequences. Anti-earmark individuals believe that appropriation bills will get larger and larger to accommodate for more and more earmarks, and that rules will get looser or be circumvented, leading to more deficits and corruption respectively. They also believe that earmarks, while maybe encouraging more compromise, could result in the passing of unpopular bills as lawmakers vote for the sake of earmarks. Furthermore, earmarks opponents believe an expensive and unnecessary earmarked project, like the Gravina Island Bridge project, may occur again, contributing to wasteful spending.

To end off, if earmarks do get approved by all chambers of Congress, what effect will that have? Well from the years earmarks were in use, we can expect more bipartisanship in Washington and more diverse voting records. With lawmakers being enticed to vote for bills to benefit their respective district, more bills will become law and overall Congress will be more productive. We can expect these new earmarks to be more transparent and reasonable, as earmarks requests will be clearly displayed and therefore knowingly put into a bill as stated by the rules set by the House Appropriations Committee. Finally, we can anticipate some Republicans taking advantage of earmarks and actively participating in the budget bills, attempting to direct some funding away from the hands of the Biden Administration and more in favor of their own agendas. However, there could be a few of the aforementioned consequences of earmarks that people have warned about, such as corruption or wasteful spending. Ultimately, Congress and the American people will just have to wait and see if reintroducing earmarks was worth it.

Unlock The Grid is a national, youth-led bipartisan organization that aims to reduce polarization in Congress by promoting working across the aisle.