Earmarks: Back With a New Name, but Still Bad Policy

It was confirmed this week by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer that earmarks are returning to the legislative process - albeit with some fancy rebranding. While earmarks will now be known as “member directed funding,” the renaming shouldn’t fool taxpayers into thinking it will magically become good policy. Afterall, earmarks are perhaps one of the most egregious ways to waste taxpayer dollars. With the federal debt steadily creeping towards $30 trillion, lawmakers shouldn’t get creative with more ways to burn more cash and should instead reverse course.

Congressional leaders use earmarks to divert federal funds to specific pet projects in a particular state or congressional district. Taxpayers may remember the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $223 million project for a remote island in Alaska. Other examples include $500,000 of tax dollars for a teapot museum in North Carolina, a $3.4 million tunnel for turtles in Florida, and $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa. 

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only examples of wasteful spending. Our friends at Citizens Against Government Waste have identified 111,417 earmarks costing taxpayers over $375 billion since they started keeping track in 1991.

Put simply, earmarks are a way for party leadership to buy votes for tough bills. If a piece of legislation might not have enough support to pass on its own, party leaders can offer federal dollars in exchange for their vote on said legislation. Trading favors through federal funding puts pressure on members of Congress to spend more to get their own pet projects approved instead of doing the tough legislative work that requires compromise, open debate, and principle. While they only constitute a small percentage of overall federal spending, earmarks nonetheless have funded a significant number of wasteful projects and, for some lawmakers, proved to be an irresistible opportunity for corruption and influence peddling. 

Following the 2010 midterm elections which resulted in Republicans retaking the House majority, incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) moved to ban this shady practice. "This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington," the Speaker said. In 2019, Senate Republicans placed a permanent ban on pork-barrel spending as part of their rules, a move spearheaded by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). 

At the time they were banned, earmarks had become a fixture of political cronyism and horse trading. Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a champion for exposing this practice, explained that the earmark ban was necessary because earmarks are a “gateway drug to overspending”, and legislation had become less about good policy and more about buying votes with earmarks.

Like many other taxpayer groups, NTU strongly opposes the reemergence of earmarks - no matter what name or shape they take. Instead of more wasteful spending, Congress should pass the “Earmark Elimination Act,” an important piece of legislation that would make permanent a ban on earmarks by prohibiting the consideration of legislation containing any earmarks and creating a point of order against those provisions. While this legislation has yet to be introduced in the 117th Congress, NTU was supportive of this bill when it was introduced in 2020. We hope the sponsors, Congressmen Ralph Norman (R-SC) and Ted Budd (R-NC) will reintroduce as soon as possible.