The Ban on Earmarks

Evan P. Chaffee

In politics, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.” Time and time again campaign promises have been made to cut national spending, reduce the national deficit, and, in recent years, ban earmarks in legislation. Do these promises represent “politics as usual,” or is a change developing in the political establishment? With the recently elected 112th Congress and a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, time will be the judge.

In the last two months Congress has been debating whether or not to establish a short-term ban on congressional earmarks. First introduced in 2008, the House of Representatives has now accepted this ban on earmarks twice; once for the 111th Congress and the other for the incoming 112th Congress. The Senate, however, has yet to ban earmark legislation. In November Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), joined by fellow senators John McCain (R-AZ), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) led the charge to ban earmark legislation in the Senate. Senator Coburn’s reasoning for standing against earmarks? He has described them as the “gateway drug to federal spending addiction.” The bill did not pass, as it garnered only 39 votes in favor and 56 votes against.


Expressing the sentiment of a number of members of Congress, San Diego Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), states that, “We need to immediately cut off the earmarks that have given Washington a bad name… Partial solutions are not enough. An immediate earmark moratorium is the only way to wipe the slate clean and allow us to start getting spending under control.” By cutting off wasteful spending generated by earmarks, many members of Congress see an opportunity to begin reforming runaway spending. On the other hand, most Democrats and some Republicans take the position that the level of regulation already implemented by Congress to provide transparency is sufficient to reduce wasteful spending generated by earmarks. To date, Congress has only implemented two such changes: by requiring all earmark requests to be posted online, and by requiring that each posting include a statement that all members of Congress have no financial interest in their designated projects. Despite the required statement of no financial interest, members of congress nevertheless benefit through campaign funding derived from interest and lobbyist groups.

As defined by the Congressional Research Service, earmarks are, “Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain Congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report).” Essentially, each earmark designates funding, usually attached to non-related legislation, for a project within a specific congressional district. Although not necessarily the same, earmarks are often referred to as “pork barrel spending,” a term that denotes appropriations of public funds for pet projects that serve the local interests of a particular legislator rather than the interests of the national population.

Earmarks, however, are not always wasted on futile or wasteful expenditures; they have served communities throughout the country. The power to fund projects is a congressional duty provided in Article One of the Constitution. If Congress fails to perform or abdicates this duty, the power will default to the executive branch. In turn, the president could fund projects of his own choosing with no congressional participation or direction. The result would be a serious disruption in our Constitutional system of “checks and balances.” Moreover, the money typically designated for earmarks is normally included in the total budget package; to be spent whether or not it is earmarked. Many members of Congress also justify the more absurd projects by explaining that earmarks represent less than 2% of the federal budget; “a drop in the bucket.” Some see this ban as purely cosmetic as there are many other ways to obtain funding for projects in the form of phone marking and letter marking. Both of these forms of gaining federal funding require direct correspondence between Congress members and federal agencies requesting funds for projects. In turn, these agencies can approve or disapprove the representative’s request, a process likely to reward the political party in power and punish members and constituents of the party then out of power.

The darker side of earmark legislation is revealed in its very flawed process. With each earmarked project added to an appropriations bill, there are generally no public hearings or review until after the entire bill has been passed. This allows legislators to jam funding for projects through the House without any accountability or transparency. Without these checks in place, many members of Congress have fallen prey to unethical and corrupt behavior by transacting with lobbyists and contractors. Earmarks have also been added to bills to persuade Congress members to vote for or against legislation as a form of payoff for a particular vote. This is most common with more powerful and senior members who sit on the appropriations committee of both the House and the Senate, both of which permit earmark additions in final closed meetings with little to no debate.

The John Murtha Airport is a perfect example of federal funding of an unnecessary and wasteful project. Once considered “the King of Pork,” the late Representative John Murtha (D-PA) obtained over $200 million dollars from the 2009 stimulus packages for a project in his Congressional district, the John Murtha Airport. This airport was originally built in 1948 outside the relatively small Pennsylvania community of Johnstown, a town with a population of just over 200,000. Steve Ellis of the Taxpayers for Common Sense has pointed out that, “[Murtha] dumped nearly $200 million into this project that has virtually no passengers. It’s practically a museum piece.” In fact, this airport only provides three daily commercial flights through one airline, and serves less than 10,000 passengers a year. Ellis continued, “The problem is you’re not getting the multiple bang for your stimulus buck that you’re looking for.” The John Murtha Airport represents the failing of the Congressional budget process that allows and encourages this type of profligate spending. As a result, voters nationwide have been calling for a change in national policy including spending limits and a reduction of the national debt.

In the past two years Representative Susan Davis (D), who represents the area encompassing UC San Diego, has acquired $214 million in earmarks benefiting local defense firms including SAIC’s work relating to posttraumatic stress disorder, and Vision Robotics for guidance systems in unmanned vehicles. As mentioned earlier, there are benefits in helping interest groups and lobbyists. SAIC has been one of Susan Davis’ top ten contributors during her time in Congress. Another San Diego representative, Duncan Hunter (R), explained, “Sure, there’s been some corruption, and the system needs to be fixed… but it’s not as if we’re just sitting here and saying, ‘here’s our favorite contractor, let’s give some money.’” Representative Hunter believes a ban on earmarks will do more to hurt than help communities. For instance, as San Diego’s economy has a significant base in defense contracts, without earmark legislation Hunter feels that both the local defense industry and national security will be harmed.

At this point in time it appears that earmark legislation is a problem desperately in need of a solution. It is readily apparent that change or elimination of earmark legislation is a necessity, if only to begin to restore faith in Congress. Congress must measure the best way to rein in spending; a process likely to start with the regulation of earmarks. The provisions in established earmark regulation that require “transparency” do nothing to prevent wasteful spending or congressional misconduct, nor does it provide or allow public input. However, establishing a ban on earmarks would provide the executive branch with a power unanticipated by the Framers when they devised our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Although the House of Representatives appears to have banned earmarks in the next Congress, there are still many ways to manipulate federal funding. After the Senate’s failure to pass an earmark ban, it is clear that Congress is not ready for the change the electorate demands. Perhaps it is time to redesign the entire budgetary process to require a baseline budget to fund the federal government, with all expenditures in excess of the baseline to be voted on in separate bills subject to committee hearings, discussion and debate.

Evan is a senior in Muir College majoring in Political Science.

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