Ahead of a U.S. House Committee on Rules hearing on whether to retain the ban on earmarks, President Donald Trump suggested Congress might increase bipartisan comity by “thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” the practice of spending taxpayer money on representatives’ pet projects.
On January 18, the House committee, chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), heard testimony for and against the moratorium. The committee did not act on the proposal.
“There was a great friendliness when you had earmarks, but of course they had other problems with earmarks, but maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” Trump said on January 9, evoking laughter among members of Congress gathered for a meeting at the White House.
In November 2010, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) enacted the rule prohibiting spending provisions directed toward specific recipients.
Barry Poulson, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says earmarks are a form of backdoor spending appropriation.
“Earmarks are what I would call special-interest legislation,” Poulson said. “In Congress, when legislators are not able to get spending programs approved through the regular budgetary process, they use earmarks. They take expenditure programs off-budget and attach them to other bills in order to get them approved without going through the normal budgetary process. This is a major problem for citizens and taxpayers, because we don’t have any control over the spending.”
Calls Earmarks Wasteful
Poulson says the practice shifts wealth from taxpayers to lobbyists.
“Earmarks are simply a way to transfer money to particular interest groups, and a lot of this money is wasted. This has been especially true in recent years. More and more spending is off-budget, that is, not subject to the regular budget process in Congress.”
Earmarks allow Congress to direct spending priorities, instead of unelected bureaucrats, but Poulson says taxpayers don’t benefit from the legislative oversight.
“There aren’t any positive effects of earmarks from the standpoint of taxpayers or citizens,” Poulson said. “There are only positive benefits for legislators and some of the special interests they’re trying to advance.”
Rachael Slobodien, communications director for the Club for Growth, says reinstating earmarks would represent a betrayal of Trump and the Republican Party’s 2016 populist message.
“What message does this send to the American people: ‘Elect Republicans to have a majority in Congress and in less than eight years, those exact same leaders will toy with the idea of bringing earmarks back’?” Slobodien said. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp.”
Calls for Open Debate
If party leaders and elected officials in Congress want resume earmarks, they should say so publicly, Slobodien says.
“If Republican leaders move forward with this terrible idea, which will ultimately cost them the majority, then at the very least the Republican conference should show their support of earmarks out in the open with a public vote,” Slobodien said.