When Democrats took over the House in 2019, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey laid down a marker: The committee, tasked with spending federal dollars, would not be reinstituting earmarks — congressionally–directed dollars often used to pay for specific projects in lawmakers’ home districts.
At least they wouldn’t this year.
But Democrats including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have made it clear that it’s possible the eight–year–old ban on earmarks may be easing to an end. Then–House Speaker John Boehner banned the practice in 2011, but as Congress continues to fail to pass basic spending bills, advocates argue that there are good reasons to bring earmarks back.
For a brief period in the mid–2000s, Ohio was awash in federal projects, thanks to a senior group of lawmakers who were “cardinals” — chairman of powerful House Appropriation subcommittees.
Then–Reps. David Hobson, R–Springfield, and Ralph Regula, R–Navarre, brought in dollars for Wright–Patterson Air Force Base, money for transit and even, in Hobson’s case, for a handicap–accessible bathroom in one of Springfield’s public parks.
“As long as it achieved the purpose I set out before, I didn’t mind pork,” Hobson said last week. “Pork was not a dirty word in my district.”
It was another Ohioan who ended the process. Boehner, who went to Congress in 1991 vowing never to accept an earmark, banned them outright when he became speaker. The Appropriations Committee, once the prime place of power in the House, lost some of its luster.
But now, with Democrats back in power, there’s been increased rumblings about the possibility of bringing back the process. Hoyer in March said he thought earmarks “can be great instruments of good when done in a way that is fully transparent and accountable.”
“I’m all for it,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, a Niles Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations committee.
“I know more about what’s happening in Mansfield or Cincinnati or Cleveland than the president does or the secretary of the Department of Interior or the Secretary of Homeland Security knows,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio. “I think it makes sense. It always has.”
Even Rep. Steve Chabot, a Cincinnati Republican, said he’d back the process — as long as it was done in a way to prevent some of the abuses of the process.
“What I would need to see before I supported a change would be that we actually do reform the process and take the abuses out that have occurred in the past,” he said, saying earmarks might help build the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati, for example. “I would certainly be happy to be part of the discussion as as long as we’re doing it in the way the founders intended.”
Earmarks were banned after a series of scandals revolving around the process, such as the controversial “Bridge to Nowhere” — a proposed bridge in Alaska that would connect the town of Ketchikan with an island of about 50 residents. They were also the focal point of a 2005 lobbying scandal that drew in lobbyist Jack Abramoff and then–Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio. And they led to the fall of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who went to prison after pleading guilty to seeking earmarks after receiving bribes from lobbyists.
Curtis Kalin of Citizens Against Government Waste, a supporter of the earmark ban, said despite the rumblings of a return to earmarks, the fact that Lowey refused to reinstate them is a sign of how politically toxic they are.
“We will keep fighting it,” he said. “And try to call out anybody who sticks their head above water and wants to make a misguided case for these things.”
Still, some good–government groups are among those lobbying for the return of earmarks.
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, a non–profit that aims to help members of Congress better serve their constituents said earmarks would help Congress reclaim their constitutional duty to hold power over the federal purse.
It would give members of Congress an avenue to better serve their constituents, a tangible sign that they are getting something done.
And he argued, they could be an incentive for bipartisanship. A Republican with an earmark in a specific bill might be more likely to support that bill, even if it’s introduced by a Democrat.
“What would you put first, practically speaking: Helping your people, or ideology?” he asked. “My guess is most people would put the interest of their district first.”
Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights group, said in giving up the right to make earmarks, the Republican majority Congress in the mid–2000s ceded all their power to the Obama administration.
Rather than look for the impact on a community, the administration went for brutal cost–effectiveness, often favoring big businesses in urban areas.
Kalin, however, said the bureaucracy is the appropriate place to decide where federal dollars go. “The reason the process exists is to go put projects through the checks and balances of determining their merit,” he said.
He rejects the argument that House leadership can use earmarks to push members to vote a certain way, calling it “legalized bribery” using taxpayer dollars.
“This is one of the reasons Americans are so frustrated with Washington,” he said. “Earmarks should not be brought back, period.”
Holman said there’s a way to reinstitute earmarks to avoid some of the scandals the mid–2000s: Banning “pay-to-play” practices where lobbyists or donors can seek earmarks and implementing a system of full transparency.
“If you’re not willing to send out a press release on it, you shouldn’t do it,” he said.
Counters Kalin: “Just because the stink is out in the open doesn’t make it any less stinky.”
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