In Defense of Earmarks

by Anders Knospe

In 2005, Alaska Rep. Don Young wielded his power as Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee to push to include federal funding for a $315 million bridge as part of the 2006 National Appropriations Bill. The Gravina bridge, nicknamed the “Bridge to Nowhere”, would connect the rural Alaska town of Ketchikan (population: 8000) to Gravina Island (population: 50), replacing the existing ferry system. The incident triggered a national uproar, with Republicans and Democrats alike decrying the bridge as wasteful “pork barrel” spending. The “Bridge to Nowhere” was just one of many controversial earmarks in the mid-2000s which led both the House and Senate to implement moratoriums on earmarking by 2011. So what are earmarks exactly? 

The federal Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as funds for projects provided by Congress which “circumvent Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes” or “specify the location or recipient [of the funds].” Instead of ceding allocative responsibilities to Federal agencies, earmarked funds are demarcated by Congress for usage on specific programs, often benefiting a specific limited set of individuals. While an infrastructure bill might secure $400 billion for bridge repairs to be overseen by the Department of Transportation, an earmark in a different bill might set aside $80 million to repair a specific bridge. Through earmarks, congressmen exercised their influence to secure federal funding for projects in their district, often slipping provisions into almost entirely unrelated bills. With this context, it is tempting to look back at Congress’ ban on earmarks triumphantly. 

In 2009, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stewarded earmark reforms in the Democratic-controlled House. When the Republicans took control of the chamber the next year, the new Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) upped the ante, banning earmarks entirely. This same battle was raging in the Senate. After a bitter fight with President Obama, who pledged to veto any legislation with earmarks in his 2011 State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) reluctantly backed down, allowing for a ban on earmarks in the Senate. At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) succumbed to pressure from Tea Party senators to adopt an earmark moratorium for the Republican conference. It seems that late 2000s populism, bipartisan in its birth of the Tea Party and President Obama alike (both of whom opposed earmarks), had put an end to what was popularly viewed to be a source of wasteful and preferential spending.

But in recent years, a bizarre array of political actors have come out in favor of bringing earmarks back. In a 2018 meeting with congressional leaders, President Trump said “Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.” Brookings, a center-left think tank, published a response calling earmarks “the one thing Trump gets right about Congress.” In a conference with fellow former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), Tom Daschle (D-SD) said “frankly, earmarks were part of deal-making”, adding “it wasn’t pretty, but it worked.” And, on Feb. 26th, 2021, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rose DeLauro (D-CT) announced earmarks would return in the 117th congress — albeit now called “Community Project Funding.” So what’s going on here? Why, after their bipartisan rejection, do many on Capitol Hill want earmarks to make a return? 

Simply put, Congress isn’t working. The 2010s were marked by record gridlock. Congressional votes are more and more divided on party lines. And according to a Gallup poll, the number of people who believe the government is “run for the benefit of the people” dropped from 64 percent to 19 percent between 2006 and 2013. Many policy wonks and politicians alike think earmarks could help through the dysfunction plaguing Congress. 

Here are some reasons why Congress should bring back earmarks: 

Earmarks get things done

In 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown struggled to wrangle the two-thirds vote of the legislature required to implement a transportation bill funded by a 12 cent gasoline tax. After losing one Democratic state senator, California Democrats needed one Republican defection. With the promise of a $400 million railroad extension into his district, Democratic leadership secured the vote of little-known Republican State Sen. Anthony Cannella. The reality is, Cannella was doing what was best for his constituents. Local politicians and community figures widely praised Cannella’s vote, saying the railroad extension would be a “huge deal for our community.” At the same time, state Democrats succeeded in passing the ambitious $52 billion transportation bill, a feat impossible without earmarks. 

Looking back, earmarks have been just as important in enabling federal legislation. In the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson faced staunch opposition by filibustering Southern congressmen. Johnson only won the crucial vote of Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden by promising to champion a Arizona water project important to the Senator’s constituents. Absent his wheeling and dealing (while not technically a legislative earmark), Johnson would not have been able to secure the votes needed to advance the landmark Civil Rights Act. 

Earmarks ground congressional work in constituent interests

Increasingly, it seems we elect congressmen not to represent our district and state’s interests, but to pen snarky twitter clapbacks. This is seen most disturbingly in Republican Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who “built [his] staff around comms rather than legislation.” 

This is a natural consequence of divorcing representatives from the direct interests of their constituents. The electorate used to be able to look at their congressman and say “they finally got us the funding to repair that goddamn off-ramp on I-64.” But devoid of concrete consequences to point to, voters are left to evaluate their congressman purely as an ideologue. Voting, no longer a mechanism for choosing the best public servant, is relegated to a purely symbolic (and performative) statement, mostly about which of the two national parties you support. This is problematic. As former congressional staffer Erikka Knuti opined, “the average person is going to drive over that overpass more times than they can directly feel the impact of the Export-Import Bank.” By allowing them to direct funds directly to their district, earmarks ground a congressman’s work in the tangible benefits they bring to their constituents. 

Earmarks’ critiques were overblown 

One of the most prominent critiques of earmarks argues that they undermine impartial meritocratic distribution of goods and services. The reality is that there will always be someone determining how resources are appropriated. If congressmen aren’t directing how public funds are used, that role falls on the already empowered executive branch. While cabinet officials are supposed to be impartial, they too play favorites. And unlike congressmen, this favoritism isn’t on the part of officials who are explicitly supposed to play favorites. Not only are congressmen supposed to favor their constituents’ interests, but they also know (or at least ought to know) their constituents’ specific interests better than Washington does. This is not to say that all spending should be micro-allocated by congress — only that wrestling back some discretionary spending from the executive is not problematic.

Fiscally conservative critics worry earmarks are simply another instance of excessive spending by out of control government. But earmarks have never been a significant percentage of federal spending, accounting for less than 1% of spending at their peaks. Non-discretionary funding (like Social Security), which is not even subject to potential earmarking, made up approximately two-thirds of the federal budget. Furthermore, removing earmarks does not in itself reduce spending, only shifting it to federal bureaucrats. Finally, earmarked funds don’t simply disappear into the void after being allocated; they go towards roads, bridges, schools — projects that have real positive impacts. 

Others worry that earmarks are a form of institutionalized bribery, where congressmen are treated to lavish projects in exchange for their votes. In the past, this has sometimes been the case. But the 2009 earmark reforms championed by Speaker Pelosi added much-needed accountability to the process, most importantly requiring certification that the earmark’s proposer has no personal conflicts of interests. In their rebirth as Community Project Funding, earmarks are regulated even further. The hallmark case of an excessive earmarked project — the “Bridge to Nowhere” — sputtered out after widespread opposition within Congress. Even in the pre-reform system, egregious earmarks rarely became a reality, and they won’t become one anytime soon.

Earmarks worked. They can help make congress work again. It’s time to bring them back.