The Democratic Case For Restoring Earmarks

Back in 2011, Republicans eliminated the practice of earmarks, the process where legislators could attach special requests for their district to existing legislation, usually in return for a vote. The elimination of earmarks was part of the Tea Party revolution that was supposedly going to finally attack runaway government spending that created massive deficits and a growing debt.

Of course, the real reason for those deficits and debt was the automatic stabilizers, such as unemployment compensation and food stamps, that kicked in the wake of the Great Recession, as well as the unfunded Bush tax cuts of 2001. Earmarks were just another Republican red herring. Eliminating every earmark in the 2010 budget would have reduced the 2010 deficit by just over 1.25% and accounted for less than 0.5% of all federal spending. In fact, earmarks were simply a way of dividing up the appropriations that had already been agreed upon, rather than a driver of additional spending.

Undoubtedly, the earmark process was being abused by some in a cesspool of corruption and waste. Jack Abramoff and Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham actually went to jail for earmark-related bribes. And there was the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere”. These became the poster-boys for the anti-earmark movement. Now, even 0.5% of federal spending admittedly comes to some real money, around $15 billion in 2010, but it is hardly the budget buster that the GOP made it out to be. But that didn’t stop Republicans from instituting a moratorium on earmarks in 2011 that has remained in place ever since.

In fact, Democrats had attempted to clean up the earmark process back in 2007 by imposing more transparency on the process. They instituted new rules that included “eliminating private-sector earmarks, requirements showing members had no financial ties to proposed projects, posting earmarks on government websites and reviews by relevant agencies.” But enforcement of those rules was perhaps never as vigorous as it should have been.

Beyond corruption, there are other complaints about the earmark process. One was that it provided a way for legislators to funnel money back to their big campaign donors by funding projects that favored those donors. Of course, as the tax bill has shown, the elimination of earmarks didn’t eliminate the problem of the government handing boatloads of cash to campaign donors. Now it is done by offering massive tax breaks or specific regulations designed to favor specific companies.

Another complaint is that it gave too much power to the party leaders and the committee chairmen who controlled the allocation of funds. But considering the fact that the Freedom Caucus, a minority of around 60 votes in the House, has essentially been allowed to bring government to almost a complete stop for nearly a decade, it makes one yearn for the day when the leadership had something to offer to negotiate for their vote.

An additional downside was that legislators from certain either non-competitive or less important districts politically never received their fair share of earmarks because the chairmen had no need to entice them for votes. This particularly hurt minority districts.

While some may question the efficacy of earmarks to actually induce certain votes on legislation, probably even more so in today’s highly polarized climate, there is no denying that it did diminish the control that legislative party leaders have over their caucus. As even John Boehner admits, “It’s not like the old days. Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats”. As one Representative says, “It’s something that can get people from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ or ‘maybe yes’ to ‘yes,’”. And providing some benefits to the district of a member of the opposition party should at least encourage them to listen on the next controversial vote.

But, contrary to what one might think, this didn’t actually increase individualism and independence in legislators but merely intensified tribalism. Because legislators had less special projects to crow about for their district, bucking the party line became even more dangerous. In addition, as the power of legislative leaders decreased, that of outside lobbyists increased, especially as legislators came to rely on them even more for campaign donations to fend of primary challenges from within their own tribe.

But the elimination of earmarks particularly hurt Democratic priorities. Because earmarks were basically part of the budgetary and spending process, that meant that the usual favors were doled out either through the tax code in the form of tax breaks, primarily for corporations, or by the allocation of federal agency funds controlled by the executive branch. In essence, not only did control of the distribution of federal money move from the legislative to the executive branch but they also moved from the budgetary process to the tax and tariff process. For Democrats, that means lower taxes and therefore lower revenues and less control of federal money to actually spend on Democratic priorities.

Moreover, earmarks actually helped address specific problems in legislative districts. As Jonathan Allen notes, “The vast majority of earmarks went to worthy projects that weren’t necessarily being funded by executive-branch grants. Earmarks routinely went to fund things like a $100,000 bump for a job-training program for people with disabilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana. One man’s waste is another man’s ladder back into the workforce”. It can be fairly argued that the lack of earmarks has hurt our response to the opioid crisis, our crumbling infrastructure, and the devastating effects of the financial crisis.

Proving the case that a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. Donald Trump has suggested bringing back earmarks, but, of course, only as a way to bribe legislators who are voting against him. And even some Republicans have discussed bringing back earmarks for infrastructure projects only. The aforementioned Jonathan Allen has a multi-point program for bringing back earmarks with full transparency, equitably balanced, with some vetting for feasibility and need, and treating taxes and tariffs in the same manner.

Democrats should support bringing back earmarks as long as they fulfill and enforce the changes they attempted to make in 2007. Yes, there will always be some abuse of the process and seemingly wasteful projects. But restoring earmarks will finally rebalance legislative policy toward government spending rather than targeted cuts in taxes and tariffs. In addition, targeted spending has a far more direct and greater economic impact than taxes or tariffs. More importantly, earmarks provide a way for Democrats to focus a government resources on their priorities, even when in the minority.

Originally published at on February 11, 2018.