• The Star Staff

Republicans and Democrats need to work together. Earmarks can help.


By The NYT Editorial Board


As the Trump presidency fades to black, it is time for Washington to get to work. In embracing Joe Biden, the American people cast a vote for civility, pragmatism and competence.

Lawmakers now have a duty to hunker down and find ways to make progress on critical issues. But with both chambers of Congress narrowly divided and ideologically polarized, coming together on even the most modest deals could prove daunting.


One promising move under consideration: bringing back congressional earmarks.


Loosely speaking, earmarks are spending requests — or, depending on your definition, also limited tax or tariff benefits — inserted into bills at the behest of individual lawmakers for the benefit of specific entities in specific locations. Think funding for a domestic violence crisis center in Alaska or for STEM programs in a rural school district in Colorado.


In the big picture, earmarks add up to little more than a rounding error, generally constituting not more than 1% of the federal budget. They are used to determine spending priorities, not spending levels, meaning they determine how the pie gets divided rather than how big it is.


As conceived, earmarks allow the people who presumably best understand a state or district — its elected officials — to direct federal dollars to where they are most needed. In practice, they also gets used for all kinds of daffy or ill-conceived projects. Remember the infamous Bridge to Nowhere? Classic earmarking. At its most vile, the process veers into organized bribery as special interests pursue ethically questionable and occasionally illegal means to get lawmakers to champion their pet issues. In the mid-2000s, a handful of earmark-related scandals landed some prominent political players in prison. Earmarks became a tidy symbol of government waste and corruption.


In 2007, the Democratic-controlled House began reforming the practice, increasing transparency and accountability. Members were required to attach their names to requests and to certify that they had no financial interests in the projects. Beneficiaries were limited to nonprofit entities or public projects. In 2011, Republicans assumed control of the chamber and went even further, declaring a moratorium on earmarks.


This ban has made Congress less accountable and more dysfunctional. It is time to abandon the experiment.


Despite their bad reputation, earmarks are not inherently corrupt. Since America’s earliest days, they have proved a useful tool for building coalitions. (The first known instance of congressional earmarking dates to the Lighthouse Act of 1789.) Nothing greases the gears of government quite like pork. A lawmaker may not care for a larger bill, per se, but the ability to slip in a little something for the voters back home can be a compelling motivator. “Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats,” John Boehner, the former House speaker, once observed.


It is this utility that many earmark opponents object to. They do not want costly legislation to be easier to pass. The budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste warns that “earmarks cause members to vote for excessively expensive spending bills that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few earmarks worth a few million or sometimes just thousands of dollars.”


Considering the thicket of crises the nation is facing, big-ticket legislation, including another meaty round of coronavirus relief, is precisely what is needed.


Of course, the earmark ban didn’t really ban earmarks. Pork spending simply became stealthier, with some members falling back on similar, more convoluted moves such as “phonemarking” or “lettermarking.” Worse, nonearmark earmarks are not subject to the same transparency requirements, making them harder to track. So much for increased accountability.


There are also questions of constitutional authority. When Congress declines to specify how the money it appropriates is spent, the executive branch is happy to fill the void. Curtailing congressional earmarks “simply shifts that power more explicitly to a president and a cadre of unelected bureaucrats,” according to John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Presidential Pork.” “Eliminating earmarking is a serious abdication of power by Congress which empowers a branch of government beyond what the Founders intended,” he has argued.


This argument should have special appeal for Republican lawmakers, who like to complain that unelected bureaucrats and unaccountable regulators have too much authority.


Since 2011, clusters of lawmakers have periodically flirted with restoring earmarks, only to abandon the efforts. The practice remains easy to demagogue, especially with mistrust of government running high. In the wake of this month’s election, House Democrats are approaching the issue with renewed energy. In a recent interview with Roll Call, Steny Hoyer, the majority leader, said that once the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee is chosen, she would begin asking members to submit “congressional initiatives for their districts and their states.”


Members in both chambers should facilitate this process — working to ensure that the new system has maximum transparency and sufficient oversight, of course. Earmarks are not a magic cure-all for today’s hyperpolarized politics. They are unlikely to, for instance, convince conservatives to support the Green New Deal or members of the progressive “Squad” to back corporate tax breaks. But restoring positive incentives for lawmakers to embrace negotiation and compromise could provide at least some counterbalance to the partisan forces fueling rigidity and gridlock.

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