A (Modest?) Proposal for Earmarking
Earmarking — congressional funding of specific local projects, arranged by individual lawmakers with little scrutiny from their colleagues — is undergoing a reputational rehabilitation. It also appears poised to make a big comeback on Capitol Hill.
Earmarking has long been criticized as wasteful government spending. Revelations that funds have gone to a North Carolina teapot museum, a Florida turtle-crossing tunnel, and research into alcohol’s effects on mice’s motor skills have provided grist for late-night-show hosts and critics of government spending. In 2008, Republican vice-presidential candidate and then–Alaska governor Sarah Palin made political hay by deriding a $220 million earmark for a “Bridge to Nowhere” in her state. The group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) annually releases its Congressional Pig Book summarizing these expenditures for each fiscal year.
As a practical matter, earmarks are a tiny part of federal spending. At their all-time high in 2006, they totaled $29 billion, just 1% of that year’s outlays. More recently, FY 2021’s earmarks were 0.3% of spending. That said, using federal money to finance local projects enables all sorts of political mischief, violates federalism, and undermines the good-government principle of subsidiarity.
About a decade ago, earmarking seemed to have reached a watershed moment. With the “TEA Party” movement in full swing, Congress announced a moratorium on the practice. After hitting an all-time high of 13,997 earmarks in 2005 and the $29 billion in spending in 2006, lawmakers adopted just 152 earmarks over FY 2011–2013, costing a total of $3.3 billion (0.03% of federal spending).
Since then, the practice has had a bit of a revival. The number of projects is still small, but their individual price tags have increased considerably: FY 2021 saw $16.8 billion go to just 285 projects, according to CAGW. The infrastructure bill now nearing passage on Capitol Hill and several other spending bills wending their way through Congress provide opportunities for more such spending.
In deference to (if not acceptance of) those claims, here is a (modest?) proposal: If Congress resumes widespread use of earmarks, then the funds should be parceled out equally across lawmakers. That would be equitable and transparent, and what better way to build comity and alliance, and advance public goals, than through fairness and transparency?
Suppose that Congress decides to spend $20 billion on earmarks in a fiscal year. That money could be divided evenly between the two houses of Congress, and then between the individual members of each house. Senators would get $100 million and congressmen about $23 million. The individual lawmakers would then determine which local projects receive the funds, and their choices would be scrutinized by their voters.
For longtime observers of U.S. policy, this idea may sound familiar. Back in 1972, Congress and the Nixon administration instituted the general revenue sharing (GRS) program to transfer some federal tax money to local and (to a lesser extent) state governments. Though the total outlays under the program were relatively small — $83 billion over the program’s 15 years, comprising just 0.2% of federal spending over that time — the program had enough support that it was extended three times before expiring in 1986.
Apparently, one of the reasons the program did end was because federal lawmakers felt they did not get enough credit for it; unlike earmarks, GRS did not associate particular lawmakers with particular projects. (It would be interesting to know if earmark spending decreased during the GRS period, but I couldn’t find data for that time.) This earmark proposal would not fall prey to that problem because individual lawmakers would divvy out the money to the projects.
This proposal would also be more sophisticated than the GRS program. Lawmakers could “bank” some or all of their funds in a given year, instead of having to distribute each year’s money that year. Lawmakers could also join forces to finance projects — say, Rep. A and Sen. B could each contribute $5 million to a project in A’s district in B’s state. And lawmakers could negotiate to borrow and lend funds with each other (presumably at interest). Finally, each lawmaker would be permitted to return the money to taxpayers in his district in the form of tax refunds, thereby addressing the standard question raised about government spending: Would taxpayers prefer the government benefit or the funds used to finance it?
This proposal has at least three virtues over traditional earmarking. First, earmark funds would not be divvied out according to lawmaker seniority and political power, unlike in the “old days” when they were dominated by such pork barrel maestros as the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Rep. Jack Murtha (Pa.). That should help with the comity and alliance-building. Second, the option of handing out tax refunds would incentivize lawmakers to distribute the funds more thoughtfully, increasing the chances that the money really would further public goals. Third, because individual lawmakers decide how their funds are used and would answer to their voters for their decisions, that would partly address subsidiarity concerns.
The one big drawback is that lawmakers could use the money to gain political benefits in an election year — or, put more crudely, to “bribe” voters with government projects and/or tax refunds. But then, is that different from what earmarks do now? Under this proposal, at least the practice would be transparent.
That aside, this (modest?) proposal should deliver — and increase — all the benefits that wistful supporters of earmarking claim the practice provides.