Democrats Open Door to Frivolous Spending and Corruption as They Attempt to Bring Back Earmarks

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Posted by Isabelle Morales on Wednesday, February 17th, 2021, 4:40 PM PERMALINK

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the new chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations panels, are planning to announce that Democrats will reinstate earmarks in next fiscal year's spending bills. They announced that earmarks will be "limited to state and local governments and nonprofits that carry out quasi-government functions," which will likely be a way for the left to reward their political constituencies.

Earmarks are congressional provisions, often within large spending bills, directing funds to be spent on specific projects or programs. Before their ban, funds would often be directed towards specific congressional districts, pressuring members into voting for legislation they wouldn't normally vote for.

Democrats are trying to repackage earmarks with the term "member-directed spending" because they recognize just how unpopular this practice is. According to the Washington Post, 79 percent of Americans said that earmarks are "not acceptable."

Americans for Tax Reform has long opposed earmarks and supported the 2011 earmarks ban. Reinstating earmarks would promote frivolous spending and corruption.  

“Earmarks are the ‘broken windows’ of government overspending, the currency of Congressional corruption, and the price of bad votes for more spending,” said ATR President Grover Norquist. “Earmarks are used to buy the votes of congressmen who would never vote for the overall package standing alone, without a bribe.” 

The most infamous example of an earmark leading to frivolous spending is the “bridge to nowhere,” a project which began in 2005 when some members of Congress from Alaska requested funding to build the Gravina Island Bridge in exchange for their votes.

The bridge was going to connect the town of Ketchikan with a population under 9,000 to the Island of Gravina, an island with an airport and a population of 50. Despite the few number of residents and the availability of a ferry, taxpayers were going to fund the bridge for $320 million. While Congress put an end to this bridge project in 2015, other pork projects have been approved. 

Citizens Against Government Waste lists the worst pork projects from 1991 to 2018 in its “Pork Hall of Shame.” Some examples include grasshopper research in 1999 for $7.3 million, combating Goth culture in 2002 for $273,000, and wool research in 2010 for $4.1 million. 

In fact, in 1999, 40% of the spending in the military construction appropriations bill that year was earmarks.  

These spending issues grow over time, as legislators become more and more comfortable with abusing the earmark process as time goes on.

For example, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill in 1987 because it was loaded with roughly 150 earmarks. By 2005, the transportation bill signed into law contained more 6,300 earmarks. 

Earmarks have also encouraged corruption, causing the downfall of members of Congress such as Pennsylvania Representative Chaka Fattah. CBS Philly reported that grant money from NASA had repaid part of an “illegal $1 million loan from a wealthy friend to prop up his [Fattah’s] failed 2007 campaign for Philadelphia mayor.” 

As the Heritage Foundation details, “Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., came under scrutiny when some of the funding that he secured through a $900,000 earmark for road construction in his district was used to repave the road where he and his daughter both owned homes.” 

Additionally, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was involved in a national scandal when he inserted an earmark of $207 million to create a highway near his own property. 

Some members of Congress argue that earmarks are will help lawmakers accomplish legislation because they have “skin in the game.” They also argue that restoring earmarks will lead to transparency that will eliminate the corruption. However, these arguments have been made before, and the corruption has continued. Even with transparency, the wasteful spending continues. 

ATR has long opposed earmarks and wasteful spending. Earmarks provide a pathway for members of Congress to spend money on special interests. This kind of frivolous spending is disrespectful to the taxpayers and a flagrant violation of Congressional duty to be responsible stewards of taxpayer funds.

Photo Credit: Paolo Rosa