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The Power of the Purse: A Phoenix from the Ashes?

In our previous posting, we walked through what earmarks were, what happened to them, and the consequences of their removal. We concluded that the elimination of earmarks disincentivized lawmaking and bipartisanship and, contrary to common belief, did not reduce deficits and spending. We also argued that only in a few egregious circumstances, which could be avoided with reforms, were outright products of corruption.

Given the undesirable consequences of their elimination, it makes sense to consider how earmarks could be restored, and with them, Congress’ constitutional authorities and duties. In this blog, we examine one reason members may be hesitant to restore their power to direct federal funds: the majority of members have no first-hand experience with the practice. Additionally, we provide recommendations for their return that would make them less susceptible to corruption and more accountable and transparent to the American taxpayer.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s recommendation for a reformed system of earmarks is based on four key principles:

  • Fiscal responsibility – The banning of earmarks has done nothing to reduce federal spending or decrease the national debt.
  • Greater accountability – Unelected officials in the executive branch bureaucracy now have greater control over federal spending. The president can easily put his or her mark on the federal budget while Congress has delegated its power of the purse.
  • Responsiveness to Local Needs –The Constitution intentionally gave Congress the authority to direct how money should be expended. Over decades, members have directed thousands of earmark projects to local needs which have been put to good use in accordance with the American idea of representative government. In fact, the practice goes back to the very founding of the country when specific projects were called out in early bills.
  • Increased Functionality – Earmarks create opportunities for individual members to be involved in the legislative process which in turn could reveal unexpected common ground in an increasingly divided institution.
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Diminishing Member Experience

The decade-long moratorium has drastically diminished member and staff experience and familiarity with earmarks. A BPC assessment shows that only about 30% of members of the current House of Representatives and just 42% of the Senate served in Congress prior to the 2011 ban. With each new Congress, the universe of members and staff with real-world earmark experience grows smaller.

Scope and Scale in the Federal Budget

A common myth about earmarks is that they are a form of runaway government spending contributing to growing deficits. This argument is both outsized and inaccurate, considering the enormous scope and scale of the total federal budget.

Even at the height of their usage, earmarks constituted only about 1% of discretionary spending, or about 1% of one-third of the total federal budget. In other words, if the entire federal budget pot was made up of 300 pennies, only one penny of said pot was set aside for member directed projects or earmarks. It should also be noted that this one penny would be further divided among the 541 members of Congress1.

Restoring earmarks does not mean there will be increases in federal spending. Agency budgeting is a zero-sum game and Congress appropriates funds to federal agencies on an annual cycle. The choice is between agencies controlling 100% of specified funding decisions or agencies controlling 99% with 1% under the purview of members acting in the interest of their constituents.

There are many ways to maintain fiscal responsibility in budgetary policy, but in terms of cutting waste, eliminating earmarks did not balance the budget. In fact, even as earmarks have been banned, we have seen a multi-trillion increase in spending. BPC President Jason Grumet makes the case that banning earmarks would not fix the debt.

Adding Accountability and Transparency

In the 116th Congress, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress issued a unanimous bipartisan recommendation to reinstitute congressionally directed spending through a community focused grants program with significant reforms. BPC developed a set of ten suggestions for reforms that would ensure greater transparency, increase the vetting process, and set appropriate limits.

Congress should reform and reclaim this constitutional prerogative so that current and future elected officials, who are accountable to voters and have a firsthand understanding of their needs, are able to make local investment decisions and ensure there is still accountability and transparency in federal spending. As mentioned previously, this is a zero-sum game with funds already allocated through discretionary spending. The focus of reforms should include prohibiting funds for private companies, establishing publicly searchable websites, limiting total amounts, and ensuring earmarks are more equitably distributed.

Grumet wrote in testimony before the House Rules Committee in 2018:

“[T]he constitutional prerogative for members to direct resources toward constituent priorities is not a begrudging “skid greasing” to be done in the shadows, but rather a core aspect of our democratic design that members of Congress should pursue openly, proudly and be held accountable for. Congress should rightly reclaim this legitimate legislative tool and establish a transparent and deliberative process that can regain the public trust.”

Earmarks are not a silver bullet that can fix Congress’ stagnation and gridlock or restore a mythological golden era of lawmaking. They can, however, be a positive force for bipartisanship and local empowerment, and create long-missing opportunities for collaboration and legislating.

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