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Why earmarks hinder Congress

Letters to the Editor for Dec. 8, 2014 weekly magazine:

Alexander and Ellis: Earmarks aren’t a silver-bullet solution to gridlock, and they wouldn’t alleviate the stark ideological divisions in Congress.

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A view of the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 in Washington.

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Why earmarks hinder Congress

In regard to the Nov. 3 cover story, “How to get Congress running again”: Your contributors offered many sensible proposals to “fix” Congress. However, the suggestion to bring back earmarks, the narrow provisions lawmakers slipped into legislation to fund projects or companies back home, misses the mark. Earmarks aren’t a silver-bullet solution to gridlock, and they wouldn’t alleviate the stark ideological divisions in Congress.

The history of earmarks shows that earmarks beget earmarks – and thus diversion of funds from priority projects to less critical ones and an increase in lobbyists and campaign cash. 

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Of course, promises of support for various initiatives are a dealmaking tool. But earmarks – as defined by Congress – are only one of the many ways to horse-trade, and their prominence in legislation is a more recent phenomenon. A review of spending bills from decades ago reveals that there were relatively few earmarks until the boom years after 1996. In the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1970 there were a dozen earmarks. The same bill in fiscal year 1980 had 62, and by 2006 there were 2,879. 

Earmark decisions were made on the basis of political muscle, not project merit. In the 2005 transportation bill, perhaps the pinnacle of earmarks, the amount of earmark cash lawmakers received almost directly correlated with their proximity to power. This has significant costs to the country. The Department of Transportation inspector general found that “Many earmarked projects considered by the [state] agencies as low priority are being funded over higher priority, non-earmarked projects.” That means important infrastructure investments were being sidelined.

As your contributors point out – legislating is hard work. Earmarks distract from that work and focus attention on one small part of the budget, making them a particularly flawed tool for dealmaking. Congress has ample back rooms and opportunity to horse-trade without inserting thousands of special interest provisions into legislation. Lawmakers certainly could bring back earmarks. Just don’t expect them to make Congress work any better.

Ryan Alexander and Steve Ellis
Taxpayers for Common Sense