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In 2005, a $223 million earmark to fund the construction of a bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, to the tiny island of Gravina, Alaska, captured national attention. The earmark, which was included in a bill to provide funding for reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina, rightfully drew scorn and ridicule from across the country. In 2007, Congress stripped the earmark.
Opponents of earmarks, however, weren’t satisfied with simply righting this wrong, they used the Bridge to Nowhere as a poster child for the supposed wasteful nature of the earmark process, and when Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they eliminated earmarks altogether — all in the name of good government.
Unfortunately for proponents of good government, the earmark ban has become the policy equivalent of the Bridge to Nowhere.
Earmarking was a process by which a congressional expenditure of funds was specified to apply to a particular project. The Congressional Research Service specifically defined earmarks as “provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report).”
While the earmark ban may make good politics, in practice it has made bad public policy — and given that Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to tax and spend, it is not only bad policy but constitutionally questionable policy.
Earmarks never accounted for a meaningful portion of federal spending. Non-discretionary funding (such as Social Security and Medicare) will account for almost two-thirds of the annual budget by 2015, while earmark spending — even at its peak — barely accounted for 1 percent of the budget.
Not only has banning earmarks not made a dent in overall federal spending, a ban doesn’t even stop the same dollars from being appropriated — it just shifts the authority for allocating those dollars from Congress to federal agency bureaucrats. At a time when most Republicans are highly critical of the Obama administration and highly suspicious of the ability of this bureaucracy to function at even the most basic level, it is certainly odd that Congress would choose to eschew any of its ability to direct spending.
Do we really believe that the same bureaucrats responsible for the Veterans Affairs scandal, the disastrous health care rollout and the IRS targeting of political opponents should be given 100 percent control over where federal dollars are allocated?
And how many Democrats were enthusiastic about the idea of ceding more authority to George W. Bush’s administration?
What’s even worse, unlike with the earmark process, decisions are now made without the knowledge of the outside world and without any recourse to rein in waste, fraud and abuse. With earmarks, we had complete transparency. We knew who proposed the earmark, what is was for, how much it was for and we gave members a chance to vote on it. Often the most “controversial” earmarks were subjects of stand-alone votes in both chambers. This is the complete opposite of how spending is occurring under the earmark ban.
Not only has the earmark ban been ineffective at reining in spending or reducing waste, fraud and abuse, the ban has also had the unintended consequence of making Washington even more dysfunctional. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the American people are deeply unhappy with Congress and the president, and overwhelmingly believe that our elected leaders need to start working together to tackle the challenges we face as a nation. Unfortunately, the earmark ban has made a challenging situation virtually impossible when it comes to getting things actually accomplished in Washington.
Whether the Pollyanna opponents of the earmark process want to admit it or not, the truth is that earmarks were an incredibly important tool in the legislative bargaining process. The legislative process is a lot more like sausage making than it is like Moses coming down from the mountain, and having the ability to use earmarks to fund important projects in a member’s district was a valuable tool in actually getting to 218 votes in the House. By banning earmarks, we have made actually passing legislation through both chambers, already a herculean task in a Washington mired in partisan gridlock, a virtual impossibility.
The earmark ban was a classic Washington overreaction. While proponents of the earmark ban may have had good intentions, the truth is that not only has it not served its intended purposes, it has also had negative unintended consequences. Like the original Bridge to Nowhere, it is time to pull the plug on the policy Bridge to Nowhere and end the earmark ban.
Steven C. LaTourette is a former Republican congressman from Ohio.