Comment: A (muted) cheer for earmarks’ return to Congress

Congress has its problems, but removing earmarks hasn’t been the curative that many sold it as.

By Ramesh Ponnuru / Bloomberg Opinion

After a 10-year hiatus, earmarks are coming back to the U.S. Congress.

Democrats and Republicans alike repudiated the practice of letting members of Congress direct federal spending to specific projects and enterprises around the start of President Obama’s administration. Now both parties have decided to revive it, with reforms.

The decision should inspire mixed feelings. Earmarking isn’t the most noble activity a congressmember can undertake, and it can even be corrupt. But the ban hasn’t lived up to the hopes that were invested in it.

The campaign against earmarks took off during the last years of the George W. Bush administration. The number of earmarks had vastly increased starting in the mid-1990s. Earmarks played a role in congressional scandals of the time. Rep. Duke Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned and went to prison after it emerged that he had taken bribes to steer defense contracts to certain companies.

Conservatives were starting to sour on Bush, regarding him as a big spender, and earmarks became a symbol to them of the party’s wrong turn during his era. “Earmarks are the gateway drug to overspending,” said Tom Coburn in 2006, when he was a Republican senator from Oklahoma. “And if you’ll get rid of earmarks, you’re going to start seeing a fiscally more conservative Senate.” Senators would no longer be tempted to vote for bills they knew deserved their opposition but included goodies for their constituents. At least that was the theory.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama presented the end of earmarks as a necessary step toward restoring confidence in government. “Because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects,” he declared, “both parties in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it. I will veto it.”

Spending on earmarks was never a large part of the budget. A new report on earmarks by Zachary Courser and Kevin Kosar for the American Enterprise Institute points out that “even at their peak, earmarks accounted for only 3 percent of total discretionary spending; and discretionary spending is only about a third of all federal outlays.”

In the first years of the earmark moratorium, though, Coburn’s gateway-drug argument looked pretty good. Federal spending and the federal deficit shrank as a share of the economy. But the picture got worse during Donald Trump’s presidency. A bipartisan spending spree took place even with earmarks gone.

The earmark ban didn’t even get rid of earmarks so much as it drove them underground. Members of Congress turned to “lettermarks”; instead of specifying who should get federal money in bills or committee reports, they wrote letters to pressure the agencies administering the spending to direct it to favored recipients. The effect was to make such directed spending depend more on which party held the White House. Liberal Democrats in Congress got results from writing to Obama’s Labor Department to get stimulus funds, but Republicans generally didn’t.

Speaking of Obama, his hope was also dashed. “Trust and confidence” in Congress, as measured by Gallup, was not high a decade ago, but managed to sink further during the earmark-free decade. Members of Congress do not seem to have had any difficulty getting themselves into scandals without earmarks. They have made do with tax fraud, insider trading and that old standby, sexual misconduct.

It’s possible that the earmark ban even lowered the repute of Congress, in an indirect way. Supporters of earmarks often argued that they helped the legislature function by giving its leaders carrots and sticks. (This was the mirror image of Coburn’s argument: He thought too much legislation was passing that way.) The ban on earmarks may have made budget brinksmanship more common. But the effect should not be exaggerated. Rising partisanship surely played a larger role, and it was happening during the period of earmark proliferation.

Looking back over the last 20 years or so, earmarks appear to have been a symptom of larger trends rather than a cause. Congressmen rejected earmarks as they grew more concerned about federal spending, and have come back to them as they have shed those inhibitions. But earmarks don’t themselves determine spending levels, even indirectly. The ban didn’t achieve much, and lifting it will slightly strengthen an enfeebled Congress and weaken an overmighty presidency. One cheer, then, for the return.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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