For decades, the term has been synonymous with Congressional corruption. Earmarks were the bane of responsible spending, the origin of billion-dollar boondoggles, bridges to nowhere, unwanted highways, and quid pro quo politics. Figures as different as Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama both parlayed their opposition to earmarking into heightened political power.
Today, there is a movement underway within the Democratic leadership to bring the practice back; Republicans, traditionally more responsible with spending, are initially showing some resistance. So who’s right and why?
As always, it’s complicated.
There’s plenty of ammunition available for critics of earmarking; some of you may be old enough to remember the $600 hammer, or perhaps the specifications on chocolate chip content that, just coincidentally, could only be fulfilled by Chips Ahoy. Roads to nowhere are a frequent complaint. And yet, from time to time, there’s a reasonable justification for spending, say, $400 on an ashtray.
That last example was a fiction; submariners will tell you that period ashtrays were metal, secured to a console or stanchion, and had covers to keep ashes out of people’s eyes. The thousand-dollar coffee maker for a C-5, however, was a real thing; it was specially designed to withstand a forced landing, so scalding coffee wouldn’t get sprayed about the room in case of an accident. During the Apollo program, millions were spent developing a pen that would write in zero-G; the Soviets used a pencil… but graphite particles frequently clogged their air filters as a result.
The point here is that there’s more to earmarks than opportunities for corruption. Spending bills presently authorize unelected bureaucrats in an executive office complete control over their own budgets, but it’s reasonable to presume they wouldn’t always be the ideal judge of how best to spend their money. One Republican, Tim Cole, a Representative from Oklahoma, told the Associated Press that he might be in favor because “…somebody who has never been to my district probably doesn’t know the needs as well as I do.”
The current proposal being pushed by Rosa DeLauro, (D) Conn., and new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, contains several provisions to keep earmarks honest and above-board. Among other things, the Member’s name would be attached to each of a limited number of requests, and for-profit corporate entities would be specifically excluded.
The concerns of Republican leadership are understandable; this practice, once restored, will ease bipartisan support for certain bills. This would act against the party Whip’s interests, making it harder to keep the troops in line. However, in the present age of perpetual filibusters and partisan obstructionism, this may well be exactly the kind of change we’re going to need going forward through 2022 and beyond.
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