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How Congress Can Restrain The Executive Branch Without Reviving Earmarks


Earmarks are corrupt, unfair, and wasteful. The ongoing effort to revive them should be squelched, and they should be permanently banned. The solution to perceived “problems” relating to Congress’s spending authority is to dramatically increase oversight and re-authorize programs and agencies Congress has neglected for many years.

During two hearings on earmarks before the House Rules Committee on January 17 and January 18, 2018, the members of Congress clamoring for a return of earmarks made the usual claims that members know better than bureaucrats where money should be spent in their districts, they are giving up too much power to the executive branch, and there is no check on spending.

This siren’s song of earmarks sounds tempting to members of Congress, particularly the two-thirds of House Republicans who were not in office when earmarks reached a record amount of $29 billion in 2006, according to the Congressional Pig Book. That was one year after the 2005 highway bill had $24 billion in earmarks, including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, and the same year in which Republicans lost the majority. Members and staff, along with lobbyists, were either being investigated or had already gone to jail over earmarks.

Earmarks Are Not Based on Merit, But Power

Witnesses at the January 18 Rules Committee hearing provided evidence that earmarks are inequitable and based on power rather than merit. Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis said, “In FY2010, members of the Appropriations Committee comprised 30 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House. Yet they sponsored or co-sponsored 48 and 30 percent of the disclosed earmarks respectively. According to an analysis of earmarks in the 111th Congress, when the names of members who requested earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, the 81 appropriators, who constituted 15 percent of the 535 members of Congress, purloined 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money.”

Ellis noted that in the 2005 highway bill, earmarks were based on position and power. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) got $1 billion in earmarks (including the Bridge to Nowhere), or 760 times the $13 million average that Ellis cited for rank and file members.

The argument that earmarks are needed to help pass legislation is easily debunked. In 2017, Congress passed the most comprehensive tax reform since 1986, including the repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare, and the House passed all 12 appropriations bills, all without earmarks.

Earmark proponents also claim that earmarks do not add to overall federal spending, and that members of Congress are not more likely to vote in favor of higher spending with earmarks. But a September 7, 2007 Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report on earmarks cited three Federal Highway Administration programs in which earmarks exceeded the authorized spending levels, resulting in across-the-board cuts ranging from 3.4 percent to 16.4 percent.

An analysis of Council for Citizens Against Government Waste’s congressional vote ratings revealed that House and Senate Republicans voted in favor of more wasteful spending during the six years before the congressional earmark moratorium in 2011 than in the six years thereafter. The House Republican average was 75.6 percent between 2005-2010 (including a record low 46 percent in 2006 when half of the votes were related to earmarks), and 80.1 percent between 2011-2016. The Senate Republican average was 74.3 percent between 2005-2010 and 85 percent between 2011-2016.

How to Solve These Problems Without Earmarks

The answer to members’ complaints about their supposed lack of control over executive branch spending is greater oversight and renewed efforts to authorize programs, not earmarks. There is no comprehensive list of oversight hearings or their outcome, or any comparison from one Congress to the next. Oversight hearings tend to repeat the same subject matter. Joint hearings within the House are rare, and joint hearings between the House and Senate are extremely rare.

Congress should address the $310 billion in unauthorized programs that the Congressional Budget Office has identified. H.R. 2714, the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act, would create a three-year schedule for reviewing and reauthorizing these programs. In the first year after an authorization expires, the program’s budget would be reduced by 10 percent, followed by reductions of 15 percent in each of the following two years, after which the program would be terminated. The legislation deserves prompt consideration.

The call to restore earmarks is partly based on the belief that Congress has inadequate control over how the executive branch spends money, even though earmarks were never more than 1 percent of discretionary spending. But they are a lazy and unnecessary “alternative” to the hard work required to enhance oversight and increase the number of authorized programs, which would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of federal spending.