Congressional Earmarks Undermine State and Local Decision-making

Published August 1, 1999

Congressional efforts to micromanage state and local decision-making may have set a new record last year, when members of Congress included thousands of “earmarked” spending mandates that often preempted local priorities in determining how such federal grant money should be spent.

An earmark is a provision in legislation that sets aside a certain sum of money for location-specific spending projects. Common to highway bills, the typical earmark might require, for example, that $40 million be allocated to construct a new interchange at a specific location on a certain highway, regardless of whether the state the interchange.

The 1998 highway bill, called TEA-21, mandated 1,850 earmarks, compared to 538 in the previous highway bill. That record was shattered a few months later, when Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill with nearly 5,000 earmarks.

What members of Congress thought would be viewed as major legislative accomplishments, the public saw as little more than an inside-the-beltway pork-fest. The true nature of the bills’ earmarked provisions became objects of ridicule in the national media and contributed to the Republicans’ poor showing in the November elections.

Such “pork barrel” spending is not new to American politics. The dictionary traces the U.S. origins of the expression to around 1905-1910 and defines it as “a government appropriation…that provides funds for local improvements designed to ingratiate legislators with their constituents.” H. L. Mencken had the practice in mind when he described American government as “…as broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”

Although pork-barrel politics has a long and ancient pedigree, the recent practice of this political art is experiencing meteoric growth. If such growth continues, the practice threatens to undermine traditional patterns of federalism that have long defined the relationships between our three levels of government.

Between FY 1985 and FY 1999, Congressional use of earmarks has grown substantially faster–25 to 1,000 times faster in most cases–than inflation-adjusted federal domestic discretionary spending. Greater and greater proportions of domestic spending are being earmarked by Washington. And while the number of earmarks has been rising each year since 1985, the growth appears to be accelerating. Between FY 1998 and FY 1999, the number of earmarks in five of the 13 appropriations bills that fund the federal government doubled.

Although project-specific earmarks still represent only a fraction of spending in most domestic discretionary programs, continued growth in the use of earmarks could soon mean congressional mandates will account for a majority of the spending in several budgetary accounts.

Absent earmarks, much of this federal money would be returned to the states according to formulas based on population and other measures of need, and spent according to locally determined priorities. Congressionally earmarked projects reflect Washington’s efforts to override local priorities and micromanage state and local affairs through distant central bureaucracies.

Earmarks preempt the competing priorities weighed by governors and other local leaders far more familiar with the needs of their states and closer to the wishes of their communities. Were it not for their being earmarked, few communities would voluntarily choose to spend their scarce federal dollars on such marginal projects. Indeed, half of the highway earmarks every year go unfunded for want of local matching money–demonstrating how marginal many of those earmarked projects really are.

Micro managing a complex economy has never worked, even in places where the effort is taken more seriously than it is in Washington. The economic ministries of the former Soviet Union tried this for decades, and their centralized efforts to mandate how much of what should be produced and where have little to show for themselves beyond the near-permanent impoverishment of a large swath of the globe.

America has had the good fortune to have been spared large-scale efforts in such futility, and our federalist system of multi-levels of government and its devolved responsibilities has been one of many factors protecting us from the misuse and mistakes of centralized power.

Although we can still hope that Congress and the President will respond to last year’s criticism–and the Supreme Court’s recent decision on state sovereignty–and work to restore a better balance of decision-making between the three levels of government, it is essential that state and local officials make Congress aware of their concerns. It is their communities that pay the price of these unwanted projects and misdirected resources, and it is they who must sound the alarm.