Opinion

Opinion: Want to Fix the Debt? Bring Back Earmarks

The give and take that is essential to overcoming differences is impossible if there is nothing to give or take

Sen. Claire McCaskill calls on her colleagues to “stick a fork in congressional pork” at an event in January. While earmarks have fallen out of favor, they are essential legislative tools, Grumet writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Our national debt stands at $20 trillion. Yet the last several years show that neither party is willing to upset voters by asking them to pay for the programs, services and tax cuts that benefit us all.

At its core, restoring fiscal balance is not a matter of convincing leaders of the right thing to do. Just about everyone understands the math. The challenge is giving members the tools to do the right thing.

Many people have ideas about how to help Congress take votes that are essential to the national interest even if they anger constituents. Some believe the answer lies in federal redistricting requirements or campaign finance reform. Others argue for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

A far more realistic and effective approach would be to bring back earmarks — those often-lampooned funds for projects in a lawmaker’s district. Critics accuse earmarks of increasing the deficit. I believe the exact opposite.

Allowing members of Congress to direct resources to priority projects does not increase spending. Agency budgeting is a zero-sum game. The choice is between agencies controlling 100 percent of the specific funding decisions or 99 percent. Even in their heyday, earmarks accounted for roughly 1 percent of total federal outlays.

While I have high regard for the public servants who work in our federal agencies, it’s not clear their spending decisions are more informed, transparent or rigorous than projects identified by accountable local representatives and approved by the entire Congress.

Moreover, it’s hard to argue that banning earmarks led to a new era of fiscal probity. It’s worth noting that the federal debt has increased by more than $5 trillion since the earmark ban took effect seven years ago.

Where local meets national

Congress eliminated earmarks in 2011 after some high-profile and highly questionable projects made it through a poorly structured process.

The choice to ban the practice rather than reform it was an overreaction that left some advocates feeling good and some lawmakers appearing fiscally responsible. But it diminished Congress’ ability to solve hard problems.

A unique design in American democracy is that our representatives must govern in the national interest while being judged every two or six years by local interests. Having eliminated opportunities for them to do something popular back home, we shouldn’t be surprised that lawmakers are now less willing to spend political capital for the good of the entire nation.

The give and take that is essential to overcoming entrenched differences is impossible if there is nothing to give or take.

Entitlements aren’t going to cut themselves, and it is hard to imagine a grass-roots movement springing up to raise revenue for needed infrastructure investment. It is nice to call on our leaders to be courageous in the abstract, but we do the nation a disservice if we ignore the things we have done to discourage this behavior.

Not the same old, same old

To be sure, some earmarking went too far. Through a process described as “midnight dumping,” dozens of projects would be dropped into major pieces of legislation on the eve of passage with little or no scrutiny or debate.

A new approach to earmarks must be fundamentally different. Congress had begun important reforms before the ban was imposed. It must revive those and add safeguards to promote transparency, careful vetting and deliberation.

Any reform package should prohibit earmarks to for-profit entities and require all proposed projects to be posted on a public website with written justification.

It should also limit earmarks to programs that Congress has actually authorized, cap the number of earmarks a member can request, make members certify that they have no personal interest in a project, bar earmarks that weren’t previously requested from being inserted into omnibus bills or manager’s amendments on the floor, and keep overall earmark spending below 1 percent of total federal spending.

With these improvements, earmarks could prove to be a cost-effective means to tackle runaway spending, unaffordable tax cuts and other problems Congress won’t look in the eye.

To maintain the delicate balance that is the basis of our nation’s success, a lawmaker must be able to demonstrate her priorities, fight for her constituents’ compelling interests and simply get things done.

The fact that direct congressional spending creates investment in the legislative process — and engagement in the hard work of governing a divided country — is not something to take for granted.

Directing resources toward constituent priorities is a constitutional prerogative for members of Congress, not a begrudging “skid greasing” to be done in the shadows. It’s a core aspect of our democratic design that lawmakers should pursue openly and proudly.

Congress should reclaim this legitimate legislative tool, and establish a transparent and deliberative process that can regain the public trust.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook

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