Do Congressional Earmarks Better Prioritize the Projects States and Localities Need?

U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan Republican.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan Republican. Mark Thiessen / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

The debate over reinstating earmarking on Capitol Hill may come down to who’s best at allocating federal funds: elected officials or bureaucrats.

WASHINGTON — U.S. representatives in favor of reinstating legislative “earmarks” are pointing to state and local officials struggling to convince the Trump administration to prioritize projects in their jurisdictions as justification.

Earmarks, as they’re often called, were spending bill provisions directing funds toward specific projects in a lawmaker’s state or district, but Republicans banned the earmarking process upon taking control of the Congress following the 2010 midterm elections.

The House Rules Committee is holding two days of hearings on Capitol Hill to consider reforming and reestablishing earmmarking, listening to testimony from fellow representatives on Wednesday. Outside groups will provide their insights to lawmakers on Thursday.

“Until this is solved we are no longer a Congress of the people,” Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, said on Wednesday. “We are just people.”

“I think this is one of the most crucial issues that faces this House today,” he added.

Young is known for backing the $398 million Gravina Island Bridge, nicknamed the “Bridge to Nowhere,” between the island and Ketchikan, Alaska, which lost its federal earmark in 2005 and had funding outright cancelled in 2015.

Congress’ moratorium on earmarking has left between $5 billion and $15 billion in the federal budget available to the executive branch each year for projects, but those funding decisions are now made by unelected bureaucrats as part of a less-transparent process.

In light of criminal abuses, congressional Democrats attempted to make the process more transparent between 2007 and 2009 by requiring earmark requests and their justifications be posted to the asking member’s website. For-profit entities were further blocked from receiving earmarked funds.

But Republicans saw an easy win and eliminated earmarks as “low-hanging fruit,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

“If you have a need in your district … we have to go hat in hand to the administration,” he said.

The dynamic has Houston-area delegates and city officials crafting legislative language in an effort to prompt the executive branch to prioritize flood cleanup and reconstruction in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, Hoyer said.

President Trump supports earmarks, arguing that in a partisan era they bring Republicans and Democrats together to do something for their districts.

Hoyer indicated he would recommend Democrats support reinstating earmarks as part of Trump’s much-talked-about infrastructure package or some other legislative vehicle, but others disagreed with the timing of discussions. Republicans are looking for another win at a time when Democrats are reluctant to pass a second stopgap spending measure without an agreement on Dreamers in place.

“I’ve seen the minority shut out of everything, so basically I’m a little more cautious,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Republicans and Democrats lamented the erosion of congressional authority and the allocation of federal funds post-earmarks.

Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said rural districts like his have been neglected, while Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, argued elected officials act as lobbyists for the small towns and police departments they represent.

“You’ve got a dike that's failing in your district? Too bad,” said Florida Republican Tom Rooney, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I can write a letter, but they might tell me to go to hell.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, said he’s struggled to get the Obama and Trump administrations to address the $160 million maintenance backlog on a navigational channel into the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. The largest inland-water port west of the Mississippi River, it moves 11.5 million tons of product worth $4.5 billion annually and supports 55,000 jobs.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the channel has a 50 percent chance of failing daily, Mullin said. A 30-day failure could prompt companies to move their operations or seek other shipping options, the representative continued. A 90-day failure would guarantee that they wouldn’t return.

“My earmarks, I always just took what the municipalities asked me to do,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from Upstate New York who is the ranking member on the Rules Committee.

That included getting a small town on Lake Ontario enough money to install a water system it needed to become a tourist attraction, she said.

Rep. Mark Turner, an Ohio Republican who once served as mayor of Dayton, used to hold public hearings to determine support for an earmark before publicly requesting one. He recommended that approach to reinstatement.

Not all Republicans are on board with earmarks, however. Ted Budd of North Carolina, was among those arguing earmarks punish lawmakers who don’t ask for them and lead to duplicative processes in government.

“Earmarks reward members who are willing to trade votes for district funding,” he said.

Young said House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose book Young Guns was instrumental in convincing Republicans to do away with earmarking in the first place, has to understand a vote to reinstate them is coming, though he’d prefer reforms come through the Rules Committee.

He believes the votes are there.

“We’ve neutered ourselves,” Young said. “That’s what it boils down to.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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