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NTU Comments To Rules Committee on Earmark Ban

by Nan Swift / /

The Honorable Pete Sessions, Chairman
The Honorable Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Ranking Member
Committee on Rules
U.S. House of Representatives
H-312, The Capitol
Washington, DC  20515

Dear Chairman Sessions, Ranking Member Slaughter, and Members of the Committee:

On behalf of National Taxpayers Union (NTU), I write to offer comments for the record in regard to the Committee’s hearing today on “Article I: Effective Oversight and Power of the Purse.” We are extremely concerned that the House Rules Committee would seriously consider bringing back so-called “congressionally directed spending,” better known as earmarks.

As you may be aware, NTU has been at the forefront of the fight to ban this practice going back decades. For example, our organization was instrumental in shedding light on former Representative John Murtha’s (D-PA) notorious “earmark factory,” a system of political favors and wasteful spending on parochial projects that spanned his years in office from 1974 to 2010. We supported President Obama when he stated he would veto any legislation that came to his desk with earmarks and we applauded House Republicans when they enacted the earmark moratorium in 2010 -- a major win for conservatives that we’ve continued to defend.

Much could be written about the many problems inherent in earmarking: the vote-buying, lack of accountability and oversight, the outsized power they vest in certain committees and members, the corruption, scandals, cronyism, corporate welfare, and pork-barrel spending. However, I will restrict these comments to today’s agenda: Article I of the Constitution and Congress’ “Power of the Purse.”

Earmark proponents argue that the ban has hampered their enumerated powers under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and empowered the Executive Branch and unelected bureaucrats to the detriment of Congress’ role as a co-equal branch of government. In doing so, they assert that the unique interests of their constituents are overlooked and they are unable to “bring tax dollars back to their districts.”

These arguments belie an understanding of the impact of earmarks on the legislative process and their effect on limited government.

In a clamour to bring back earmarks under a “reformed” regime, earmark supporters have emphasized a need for transparency, accountability, oversight, and open consideration of earmarks. These tools are already at the disposal of Congress through the normal legislative process. By authorizing programs, and eliminating unauthorized spending, Congress can wield significant oversight and explicitly prescribe how agencies and the Administration are to spend taxpayer dollars. Rightly executed, the authorization process provides ample opportunity for the transparency and open consideration earmark boosters claim they need.

Likewise, appropriation bills provide an additional chance for Congress to dictate how taxpayer dollars are spent. In addition to the typical bill-writing procedure of hearings, markups, amendments, and floor consideration, legislators are encouraged to submit appropriations requests, which are often solicited from constituents. Similar to the old earmark process, these requests are not transparent or open to public oversight -- a significant problem that should be changed. Still, it is clear that legislators currently have ample discretion in prioritizing the needs of their districts via regular order.

Legislators should reassert their Article I authority by taking steps such as sunsetting lapsed authorizations, amending the Legislative Procedure Act to check bureaucratic overreach under the Chevron doctrine, and writing less ambiguous legislation that defers decision making to agencies. Members can also exert their power of the purse by repealing past “zombie” earmarks that litter the Federal Code and distort the allocation of limited resources. For example, an earmark from 1961 required that coal be shipped from Pennsylvania to the U.S. military bases in Kaiserslautern, Germany. This was renewed annually without further consideration through 2015 when a bipartisan team of legislators opposed this wasteful spending.

Earmark supporters claim that their lack of influence and input is felt most severely when it comes to infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, earmarking has contributed to a belief that the federal government should be the primary funding source for highways, flood mitigation, dredging, and other projects. Instead, the authority and responsibility for many such projects properly lies with the private sector or local and state governments who can best meet the unique needs of their residents without forcing taxpayers in other states to underwrite a project with minimal benefit outside the state or district. The growing role of the federal government in all manner of infrastructure projects has drained the federal Highway Trust Fund, created an insurmountable backlog for the Army Corps of Engineers of more than 1,000 projects going back nearly two centuries, and diverted resources from pressing issues. Adding pork projects to already stretched budgets and agencies will only exacerbate this persistent problem.

The 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN Act, demonstrates that restoring earmarks is not the only, best way to maintain Congress’ power of the purse. While far from perfect, the legislation did make significant progress toward better project prioritization and strengthened Congressional oversight. This was the product of many years of debate and input by all affected parties. Reinstating earmarks would reverse this hard work.

The best way for Congress to reassert its status as a co-equal branch and play a more active role in how funds are directed is to simply do the tough job of legislating. This would require putting parochial politics aside and instead invoking the latter half of that Article I, Section 8 statement earmark proponents quote so often: “the general welfare [emphasis added].” But if the wheels of government can’t turn without the grease of bacon fat, then Congress is more broken than previously imagined.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments and we urge you in the strongest possible terms not to overturn or undermine the ban on earmarks.

Sincerely,

Nan Swift
Director of Federal Affairs
National Taxpayers Union