What if reviving the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere" and projects like it were the key to jumpstarting a gridlocked Congress — and supported by members in both parties and the president? That’s right: Bringing back earmarks might actually fix some of what’s broken in Washington.
Earmarks, for the uninitiated, were provisions inserted into bills that provided specific amounts of money for various projects, groups or programs. In practice, these requests allowed lawmakers to specify federal funds for the benefit of industries or organizations in their districts, ensuring a crucial relationship between voters and their representatives in Washington, D.C. — and were often granted to ensure representatives’ votes.
However, since eliminating the practice, Congress has seemed increasingly unable to effect change, riven with inter-party rivalry, unchecked animosity between the parties and unable to find any bipartisan support for new policies. Now, dwarfed by a president who dominates the media and the burgeoning importance of the judiciary, the third branch of government seems relegated to a reactionary and defensive stance, more likely to comment on the news than make it.
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There are myriad reasons for this: Many members are better versed in crafting soundbites and pitching television bookers than building coalitions and policy ideas; the allure of lucrative employment in the private sector has caused staffers with deep institutional knowledge to leave Capitol Hill; and most industries have learned to navigate around Congress to achieve their advocacy goals. Reasserting itself in the process of federal spending will allow Congress to change many of these dynamics, provided the system is brought back in a thoughtful and transparent manner.
Despite their recent fall from grace, earmarks can provide lawmakers with more flexibility in dealing with the local consequences of national problems. Consider, for example, two current industries where targeted federal dollars could make a big difference: Winemakers in California’s Napa Valley face the daunting task of protecting their livelihood from the threat of wildfires and competition within FEMA for rebuilding dollars and within Interior for prevention funding, when earmarked money from the lawmakers who know the region best could provide better solutions to future threats. Or, in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Louisiana where oilfield laborers face uncertain futures, lawmakers could use earmarks to offset the costs of training people with the new skills they need to thrive in the digital economy.
Simple steps to reform earmarks will go a long way in re-establishing its integrity. Many of these, such as putting requests in writing, reducing the total number of earmarks and requiring that all requests are filed several days in advance of a vote were suggested by President Bush in a 2008 Executive Order. Additionally, lawmakers should be required to publish each request in a newspaper within their districts. For districts where a newspaper doesn’t exist, this should be done via Congress' direct mail system. Requests should also be published on each congressional website. These extra steps would not only drive local engagement but ensure that requests were made with the full knowledge of a member’s constituents.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the lack of earmarks has done nothing to curtail federal spending, which continues to skyrocket. Federal funds not spent on earmarks aren’t saved — they’re simply spent by federal agencies instead. According to Thomas Mann, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, in 2009 (the last year earmarks were granted), earmark spending constituted less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Earmark spending was a vital part of the legislative branch for decades and the abdication of this duty has served to separate members of Congress from their constituents while empowering special interests and making our national politics increasingly divisive. More importantly, it has fundamentally upset the careful system of checks and balances envisioned by the founders and fueled an unprecedented increase in executive power.
To restore this careful balance, create greater local accountability for members of Congress and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent to fund local priorities, a reformed earmark system provides a great first step in helping fix our gridlocked political system.
Joe Brettell is a former Congressional spokesman and currently partner at the Prosody Group, where he heads the strategic communications and government relations practice.