House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told a select committee on Tuesday that he would restore the use of earmarks so that members of Congress have “a greater say in directing spending toward critical public projects in their communities.”
“Earmarks … can be great instruments of good when done in a way that is fully transparent and accountable,” Hoyer told the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
“Eliminating them altogether, which was a winning talking point but a misguided policy, has had the effect of taking Congress out of key funding decisions,” he continued. “No executive branch official knows a district and its needs better than that district’s Representative.
“I believe it is time to bring earmarks back,” Hoyer said.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn said Tuesday he believes Hoyer’s proposal to bring earmarks back “is one of the best things we can do for this institution.”
“We abrogated our responsibility to our constituents when we allowed them to be done away with because we’re the ones who go back to our districts and get a genuine feel for the wants and needs of the people who elected us,” Clyburn said.
“To turn the decisions on spending in our districts over to bureaucrats who see nothing but numbers and statistics is just wrong. It was ridiculous to do away with earmarks and I believe it contributed to adversarial environment we have in Washington today.”
The House Majority Whip went on to describe earmarks as a vehicle for getting lawmakers to sit down and work together on common problems.
“For instance, Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., and I share six counties between our two districts. Sitting down to discuss the mutual needs are our constituents, and to be able to use earmarks to address them — to, for instance, pay for a needed drainage system — is vitally important and makes for effective government.
“And the same is true with working with members of the other party,” Clyburn continued. “I share two counties with Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and there are a lot of things that we could get done working together. Earmarks facilitate that. And like I said, doing away with them is the worst thing we ever did to this institution.”
The use of earmarks was actually on the decline in the early 2010s, when a string of highly publicized questionable expenditures enabled the congressional Tea Party Caucus to seize on them as a symbol of a dysfunctional Congress.
Those who supported their continued use pointed out, as Hoyer did Tuesday, that the provisions allowed lawmakers to specify how money is used in their home states, and that even when considered in aggregate amounted to less than half of 1 percent of total federal spending.
Earmark proponents like Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, further argued if the funding mechanism was eliminated, Congress would cede more authority over spending decisions to the executive branch.
Inhofe went so far as to say in an opinion piece published by Politico in November 2010 that doing away with earmarks would effectively trash the Constitution and violate members’ oaths of office.
Despite these arguments, the debate raged on and gained potency, egged on by earmark opponent Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who at this point had just become the new House speaker.
“Earmarks,” he said in a joint statement issued with then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “serve as a fuel line for the culture of spending that has dominated Washington for too long.”
Even President Barack Obama lined up with the earmark dissenters, saying in March 2009 that they had been “used as a vehicle for waste, fraud and abuse. Projects have been inserted at the eleventh hour, without review, and sometimes without merit, in order to satisfy the political or personal agendas of a given legislator, rather than the public interest.”
His remarks came the day after the Senate passed a $410 billion spending bill that included nearly 9,000 earmarks. Nevertheless, the president said earmarks could serve a useful purpose, if Congress and the White House could get together on a new set of guiding principles.
Among the measures he proposed was that earmarks be posted on lawmakers’ websites “so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merit for themselves”; that each earmark “be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer”; and he promised to eliminate any future earmark found to have “no legitimate public purpose.”
Instead, first the Senate and then the House moved for outright bans. By February 2011, earmarks were gone.
On Tuesday, Hoyer reminded the select committee of past efforts to curb earmark abuses.
“When Democrats were last in the majority, we reformed the earmark process substantially, requiring members to post all their earmark requests online and justify every dollar,” he said. “We banned earmarks to private entities and required members to certify they had no financial interest as well.
“Transparency and accountability fixed what was wrong with earmarks in earlier years,” Hoyer added.
Following the House majority leader’s remarks, The Well News reached out to several members of the House and Senate to take the temperature of the earmark debate today.
Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the body’s chairwoman, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is “a strong proponent of Congressionally-directed spending and believes that it is imperative that Congress exercise its constitutional responsibility in determining how and where taxpayer dollars are spent.”
“Unfortunately, there is currently not the necessary bipartisan, bicameral agreement to allow the Appropriations Committee to earmark,” Hollander said on Lowey’s behalf. “Over the coming months, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate must discuss the issue of earmarks in our respective caucuses and conferences to determine member preference, solicit ideas to ensure that taxpayers dollars are spent wisely and, when applicable, change rules to permit members to request earmarks.“
“Congress must exercise its constitutional responsibility to determine where and how our taxpayer dollars are spent most efficiently,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.”However, we currently do not have the bipartisan, bicameral agreement that is needed to allow the Appropriations Committee to resume the earmark process right now.
“Members from both sides of the aisle must discuss this issue, see if it enjoys support, and be sure it is done in a way that taxpayers’ funds are spent efficiently and transparently, and, where necessary, change the rules to permit these requests,” she said.
Stephen Ellis, executive vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said in a lengthy email that “there is no evidence that earmarks got things done more effectively” and that past efforts at earmark transparency left a lot to be desired.
As an example he pointed to a rule imposed in 2007, by the then-new Democratic majority in the House requiring members to submit a letter for each requested earmark identifying intended beneficiary and stating they had no financial interest in the funded entity.
“The first year, the letters were available only in bound paper copies, in later years they were online,” Ellis said.
In 2010, then-House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., attempted to streamline the process, requiring lawmakers to post all of their earmark requests on their individual web sites at the time of submittal.
But Ellis said this didn’t help transparency.
“You had to go to all of the web sites to see the universe of requests — and this was all requests, not just the ones that successfully got in the bill,” he said.
Obey, who retired that same year, tried to also ban earmarks for for-profit entities. This was rejected out of hand by Inouye, who then-chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It didn’t matter because FY11 bills didn’t get done before the Republican majorities took over and instituted the [earmark] moratorium, which was included in Republican conference rules,” Ellis said.
One obvious question, if one assumed Hoyer was expressing a widely-held desire of House Democrats is why they simply didn’t bring earmarks back during the rules process after they took back control in January.
“The reason the Democrats have not brought back earmarks is because the optics are bad,” Ellis said. “As Hoyer indicates, the moratorium was a winning talking point. That’s why Lowey has said the only way they will bring back earmarks is with bipartisan, bicameral agreement. That hasn’t happened. She has already indicated no earmarks for FY20, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are none for FY21 in the run up to the election. After that – maybe.”