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Commentary By Brian Riedl

Reviving Earmarks Would Be a Colossal Mistake

Economics Tax & Budget

House Republicans are reportedly likely to revive the corrupt practice of earmarking pork projects. They were set to approve the change last November until House Speaker Paul Ryan – an earmark critic –convinced the GOP caucus to delay the vote until early 2017. The new vote could occur at any time.

With a strong “drain the swamp” majority re-elected just five months ago, bringing back earmarks would be colossally tone deaf.

Because only 60 of today’s 238 House Republicans were even in office when earmarking peaked – and cost them control of Congress – in 2006, a history lesson is in order.

The issue is the distribution of government grants. Historically, Congress would set a program’s general funding criteria, and then federal agencies would distribute most grants either through a competitive application process, or by formula to state and local governments.

By contrast, “earmarking” is the practice by which lawmakers personally select the recipients of government grants within the funding legislation itself.

While earmarking goes back to the first Congress in 1789, it has historically been reserved for rare Congressional priorities. Yet in the late-1990s, Congressional Republicans realized that politicizing government grants could raise enormous sums of money. Between 1996 and 2005, the number of annual appropriations earmarks leaped from 958 to 13,997. From 1982 to 2005, number of earmarks in highway authorization bills surged from 10 to 6,371.

Lawmakers defend earmarking by asserting that they understand their district’s government grant needs better than distant government bureaucrats. In theory, this is persuasive. In reality, earmarking has proven to be a policy and political disaster.

A major challenge is staff resources. As a former Senate aide, I have seen small Congressional staffs work 60 hours per week just to keep up with legislation and votes. Expecting them to also analyze dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of government grant proposals from their state or district is simply unrealistic. They have neither the time nor the expertise to comprehensively audit all the applicants, research the often-technical proposals, and then weigh them against countless other applications competing for the same program funding.

Consequently, as earmarks soared in the early 2000s many lawmakers skipped the full audits and analysis, and instead handed out government grants to donors, friends, and allies they wished to curry favor with. Essentially, government was for sale.

At the point, the gold rush began. A new industry of highly-paid appropriations lobbyists promised to help clients buy government grants for pennies on the dollar. One study estimated that every $1 companies spent lobbying bought $28 in earmarks. Another study revealed that “60 percent of the members of the House Armed Services Committee who arranged earmarks also received campaign contributions from the companies that received the funding.”

Numerous criminal investigations were launched. Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the Appropriations Committee an “earmark favor factory.” One Congressman went to prison after circulating a menu matching various sizes of earmarks and federal contracts with the required bribes.

Politics trumped merit: Lawmakers were essentially given individual pots of tax dollars to distribute almost at will. Leadership, appropriators, and vulnerable members were allocated the largest pots, while rank-and-file lawmakers in safe districts received less. Most lawmakers refused to question each other’s pork. Accountability was absent.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, were treated to stories about Alaska’s $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere,” and earmarks for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and to combat teen goth culture in Blue Springs, Missouri. And all this pork greased the skids to pass bloated government expansions.

By 2006, enraged voters had seen enough. An April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll ranked banning earmarks as voters’ top priority for Congress. Yet the gravy train continued, and seven months later the Republican majority was thrown out of Congress in their worst defeat since Watergate. Exit polls ranked corruption and ethics (mostly tied to earmarks) as the top issue.

Repentant Republicans promised to ban earmarks if returned to power – a promise they fulfilled shortly after retaking the House in 2011. Now, after six years of strongly re-elected majorities (achieved without earmarks), many want to slouch back into the pork-barrel swamp.

Of course, earmark advocates claim that new controls can prevent abuse. Past experiences and the temptations of power and fundraising merit skepticism.

Lawmakers truly concerned with federal agencies’ grantmaking authority could either write more specific grantmaking criteria, or – even better – distribute the money to state and local governments by formula and let them decide how to allocate these funds.

After all, why should Congress be micromanaging where to build a traffic light in Briarcliff Manor, NY, or a sidewalk in Franklin, TX?  Congress should focus on replacing ObamaCare, overhauling the tax code, and fighting terrorism, rather than becoming once again, in the words of former Congressman Dan Lungren, “mere errand boys for local government and constituents.” 

It took 12 years for the 1994 Republican revolutionaries to become the 2006 establishment dealmakers that lost Congress. Six years into a new majority, Republicans must decide whether to go back down that road.

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Brian M. Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here

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