Let's Make Sure Earmarks Stay In 'the Dustbin of History'

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Back in 2011, Congress took a rare positive step to rein in wasteful and politically motivated spending by ending the disgraceful practice of “earmarks.” Unfortunately, some members of Congress want to undoprogress made in treating taxpayer dollars with the respect they deserve by bringing back wasteful pet projects.

Prior to the ban, earmarks were a favorite tool of the political establishment to corral the votes needed to pass major legislation. On-the-fence legislators could be provided with sweeteners, like a major infrastructure project in their districts to assist in their re-election efforts, in return for their votes.

While some have argued that this greases the wheels of the legislative process and reduces gridlock, taxpayers should see right through this line of reasoning. After all, the argument is that legislation that can’t cross the needed vote threshold on its own merits can be pushed over the finish line through thinly-veiled bribery. That’s no way to run a government.

And we’ve seen how this form of pork-barrel spending works out in practice. The most (in)famous example of an earmark came in the form of the 2005 “Bridge to Nowhere,” a project which would have required a bridge as long as the Golden Gate Bridge to replace a ferry system in a remote section of Alaska. For a cost of $450 million, this bridge would have connected just 8,000 Alaskans to a small local airport. The project was eventually cancelled, but only after being exposed and generating massive public backlash.

Not all earmarks are as egregious as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” but it’s hardly uncommon for them to have such a clear purpose as a vote-sweetener. Earmarks regularly were directed towards districts whose representatives had more difficult reelection fights ahead of them, handing them with something to brag about to their constituents in the reelection battle to come.

Taxpayer dollars should not be available to Congressional leadership as a slush fund to be passed around to encourage a “yea” vote. Idealistic as it may sound, members of Congress should vote for or against legislation based on whether they approve of it or not on its own merits.

And earmarks may not be the incentive towards groupthink in the rank-and-file that leadership seems to believe they are. After all, members of Congress aware of the availability of earmark dollars could withhold support for legislation they would otherwise vote for in order to maximize funds going to their districts.

The ability of Congress to push money towards specific districts likewise created ample opportunities for corruption. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was infamous for using the earmarks process in his clients’ favor, calling earmarks the “favor factory.” Harvard researchers found that when a state had a senator take up a position as chair of an important committee, earmarks to that state shot up by 50 percent.

And earmarks can encourage even more direct forms of corruption. Representatives Benny Thompson (D-MS) and Dennis Hastert (R-IL) each became the targets of scandals when they used the earmark process to improve the roads or highways near their homes, and Representatives Duke Cunningham (R-CA) andWilliam Jefferson (D-LA) went to prison for earmark-related corruption.

This isn’t the first time that Congress has floated the idea of bringing back earmarks. Just like every other time, Congress should ensure that earmarks remain where they belong — in the dustbin of history.

Andrew Wilford is a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax policy research and education at all levels of government. 

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