Earmarks Are Back and the Congressional Pigs Are Already at Full Wallow

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

It took six years after “The Bridge to Nowhere” was exposed in 2005 and a Tea Party revolt in 2010 to force Congress to drop earmarks in 2011, but the “gateway drug to Federal Spending Addiction (FSA)” is officially back.

You remember earmarks, don’t you? Those are the juicy spending goodies individual senators and representatives stick in appropriations bills, oftentimes in the past anonymously and to the benefit of congressmen’s family members, campaign donors and corporate buddies.

Both the Democrats who control, barely, the Senate and House, as well as the White House, and the majority of House Republicans voted to support the return of earmarks even though public opposition has been solidly against the move for a decade.

Not all Democrats favor earmarks, though. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calf.) wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: “It is disappointing that the House has now gone back and unlocked the door to a system with a history of corruption and backroom deals that waste tax dollars.”

But there is a shiny new, non-threatening name — “Community Funding Projects” — for earmarks, as well as new rules that prevent the kinds of anonymity abuses that were formerly so common and requiring a higher level of transparency about who is getting the tax funds that often collectively total in the billions of dollars.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calf.) defended the majority of his caucus who supported the return by noting:

“There’s a real concern about the administration directing where money goes. This doesn’t add one more dollar. I think members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden. I think members want to have a say in their own district.”

Similarly, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) claimed in a statement that:

“Members want Congress to help their communities, particularly now as the pandemic exposed so many inequalities and needs. Community Project Funding will allow Members to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.”

McCarthy’s mention of Biden reflects the traditional congressional rationalization for earmarks that they provide Congress with a way to get around the control of appropriated funds by the executive branch.

And, as DeLauro said, the traditional rationalization also emphasizes that members know their state and district needs better than those unelected bureaucrats in Washington, so having earmarks is really a great thing because it allows senators and representatives to exercise “their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities.”

So how about we check out the first list of earmarks under the new regime. Open the Books, one of the most valuable non-profits ever created, has a comprehensive, accessible database here.

Open the Books’ chief Adam Andrzejewski has the summary:

“This week, the U.S. House posted online 3,309 earmarks proposed by 324 members of Congress. The taxpayer cost of these new projects amounted to $9.7 billion …

“Democrats requested 2,338 earmarks for $4.94 billion. Republicans requested 971 earmarks for $4.7 billion. Six of the top eight members requesting the most earmarks and 14 of the top 25 were Republicans.”

And consider these individual examples unearthed by Open the Books of the fruits of freeing that deep first-hand understanding of our esteemed elected representatives:

  • $5,000 to purchase “Santa gifts” for seniors in Beech Grove — Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN);
  • $250,000 to expand the Michelle Obama Library — Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-CA);
  • $300,000 for a new dog park in Montebello — Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA);
  • $500,000 for the Trenton Artwork Project, which consists of murals along a pedestrian and bike path — Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ);
  • $1.2 million for the “Canandaigua Trolley” — Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-NY).
  • $1 million for the “Planned Parenthood Mar Monte Blossom Hill Health Center Relocation and Renovation” — Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of worthy projects on the list, but let’s be frank about three things: First, everybody involved in the long-running campaign to bring back earmarks knows they have to be extra careful not to allow a new “Bridge to Nowhere” to show up on this initial list.

Second, while there is truth in the claim about “restoring congressional spending authority” to justify bringing back earmarks, the fact remains these are all examples of individual senators and representatives getting big dips into the hard-earned tax dollars we send to the nation’s capitol. Don’t think for a nanosecond that any of these earmarks are chosen without regard to helping the member get re-elected.

And, most importantly, there will still be a significant element of masquerading in the new process. Yes, any individual member can lodge a protest against a particular earmark.

But that only applies if the earmark wasn’t included in the original appropriation. That means the basic evil of earmarks remains exactly as it was before — approved as part of a bigger bill that is all but certain to be passed.

And that is why Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called earmarks “the gateway drug to Federal Spending Addiction,” because they make it so much easier for senators and representatives to spend our tax dollars without a wisp of guilt or accountability.

No matter how much lipstick Congress applies to the pork, it’s still a pig.