Checks and Balance: The Appetite for Pork May Not Satisfy the Hunger for Change

By Kate Ackley | CQ Magazine | February 5, 2018

Lawmakers almost certainly won’t resurrect earmarks before the November elections, but they’ve moved their debate from the secretive confines of something resembling a Dead Earmarks Society meeting to the public view of congressional hearings.

And with good reason: Those pots of federal money handed out at a lucky lawmaker’s discretion, usually at the urging of lobbyists, may not be the healing balm for all that ails Congress. But members and their K Street benefactors can make a credible argument that earmarks would lubricate, at the very least, the jammed-up appropriations system.

Anything that could help put an end to governing from crisis to crisis and stopgap to stopgap, or anything that might obviate the lapses in federal funding, seems worth exploring. After all, appropriating money to keep the government operating is Congress’ core mission.

That’s why, even though earmarks are still contentious and deeply controversial, debating their return in public is no longer taboo.

“If we want to get serious about funding the government in a responsible way, if we want to get serious about the Congress once again being a functional institution, then it has to be a serious discussion,” says former appropriator James P. Moran, the Virginia Democrat who is now a lobbyist with McDermott Will & Emery.

“Members need some skin in the game — if they don’t have anything that can justify their vote for an appropriations bill, the easiest thing to do is vote against it and take credit for saving taxpayer money,” Moran says.

Someone still decides where federal money goes. Lawmakers continue to set spending levels for most federal agencies and programs, but absent congressional earmarks, agency officials typically dole out that roughly 1 percent in discretionary spending that lawmakers once guided.

The House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, said during a recent hearing examining an end to Congress’ self-imposed ban, that before the demise of earmarks in 2011 “there was a sense that both sides of the aisle had investments in the appropriations bills.”

A former appropriator, Hoyer is urging his colleagues to bring back earmarks in a bipartisan manner to give both parties political cover.

There’s no question that earmarks held a corrupting influence on some members of Congress, from both parties, whose practice of quid pro quo rocked the Capitol a decade ago. Recall former Rep. Duke Cunningham, the California Republican, who accepted $2.4 million in bribes and a yacht he named the Duke-Stir in exchange for earmarks.  He went to prison for more than seven years.

During the heyday of earmarks the lobbying industry flourished as K Street denizens lined up cities, universities, nonprofits and companies eager for taxpayer dollars.

Some lawmakers sought campaign contributions as a price for earmarks, which is why lobbyists like Moran argue that if lawmakers bring them back, they should restrict donations from those seeking earmarks and require disclosure.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense and other earmark opponents don’t buy the argument that the pots of funding would act as a magic pixie dust on the legislative body. The last time the House and Senate completed all of the spending bills individually and on time was the same year we watched police chase O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco around Los Angeles.

“The thing is: The issues and challenges are much bigger than earmarks,” Ellis says.

With earmarks, he adds, “you’re substituting political muscle for project merit” when spending taxpayer dollars.

In the age of the resistance movement, Republicans wouldn’t have wooed the support of a Democrat to the tax overhaul by sending a new bridge to her district.

The point is: Partisan politics doesn’t have to dominate the debate over appropriations bills.

It’s naïve to think earmarks would be all-powerful and recenter congressional power among the few remaining moderates or that they would spur along a flurry of legislation. But earmarks could well persuade more rank-and-filers to champion a more normal, if delayed, appropriations process.

“Earmarks are not going to solve the partisanship that’s dividing the Congress, but would serve as one unifying factor for people to coalesce around the spending bills,” observes GOP lobbyist Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International.

The return of earmarks would absolutely spark new business for lobbyists like Herson.

In the seven years since Congress banned earmarks, K Street has managed to survive without them. The question is: Can the appropriations process?

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