A Return Of Earmarks? Not So Fast

David Williams President, Taxpayers Protection Alliance
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For many years, earmarks were business as usual in Washington, D.C. That changed in 2006 when Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives partly due to their excessive spending on earmarks. Responding to that voter pressure, Congress instituted transparency rules for earmarks starting in 2008 and then in 2010, the House and Senate agreed to a two-year moratorium.

The moratorium was extended and most earmarks disappeared, except for the defense spending bill. In fact, TPA uncovered 186 earmarks worth $7 billion (click here to see the full list) in the Defense Appropriations Bill that was part of H.R. 3547, the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, aka the Omnibus appropriations bill.

One member of Congress tried to unsuccessfully bring back earmarks. A post from Redstate.com on November 14 noted that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) tried to introduce an amendment to House rules that “would allow an exception to the earmarks ban for ‘State, locality (including county and city governments), or a public utility or other public entity.’”

On Friday the House GOP voted in a private meeting to take up the Rogers exception allowing earmarks to return after a four-year ban. The proposal was soundly defeated by a vote of 145-67. The discussion and debate over whether to adopt Congressman Rogers’ earmark allowance was described as “vigorous” by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla) but after all was said and done, the ban on earmarks remained intact.

This wasn’t the first time that Rep. Rogers has suggested this. According to a March 30, 2012 Reuters article, “In a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, [Mike] Rogers recommended reviving a proven legislative sweetener that became politically toxic a year ago. Bring back earmarks, Rogers, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, told his colleagues.”

Bringing back earmarks would be a colossal mistake that could endanger the fiscal health of the country and the Republican’s chances of staying in power in two years.

Earmarks have been the bribery currency of Congress for many years, as both parties used them to buy votes. Former members of Congress including Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) were sent to jail for accepting bribes to secure earmarks. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff also spent time in jail in connection with earmarks promised to clients.

The notorious Bridge to Nowhere earmark became a national symbol of government waste. The project, spearheaded by two powerful members of Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), sought to connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island, an island with 50 residents and the Ketchikan International Airport. The price tag for this boondoggle topped $223 million.

Even though strong public sentiment and common sense were against the carve-outs, the Alaska duo fought hard to keep the funding intact. When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to reassign the funds for the Bridge to Nowhere to the hard-hit Gulf Coast states following Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Stevens threatened to resign if his pork project wasn’t funded. Grassroots outrage and the sheer stupidity of the project ultimately killed the Bridge to Nowhere.

Unfortunately, our nation’s history is full of examples of wasteful spending due to the practice of congressional earmarking. Some of the most egregious examples include: $50,000,000 for an indoor rain forest in Iowa; $500,000 for a teapot museum; and $100,000 for the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Earmarks don’t become earmarks because of their silly sounding names, they are earmarks because they circumvent established budgetary processes and procedures. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has called earmarks “the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington.”

The good news is that the idea was shot down. But, that doesn’t mean that the issue is done. Earlier this year, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas) floated the idea of bringing back earmarks as he was running for office. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also suggested that earmarks should return to the spending bills.

More members of Congress will invariably speak up in favor of bringing back earmarks. But those members of Congress who do want to bring them back should remember what happened in 2006 when the Republicans were punished for earmarks.

And, as the Republicans prepare to control both chambers of Congress they have a responsibility to keep earmarks out of the spending bills. If they don’t, their majority may be short lived.

David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.