Congressional earmarks — the drug of choice for big spending Congressmen and Senators who want to “bring home the bacon” — have been dead for ten years. But like a monster in a horror movie sequel, earmarks always threaten to come back to life. House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer recently said Congress will raise earmarks from the dead in the new year.
The Swamp is thrilled. Lobbyists and their special interest clients are salivating at the prospect of more pork. Members of Congress delude themselves into believing their voters want them to sacrifice the long-term good of their country for short-term gain for special interests in their states and districts.
In truth, earmarks only enrich and empower Washington insiders. During the heyday of congressional earmarks, the national economy was frustratingly stagnant. But the local economy in Washington, D.C. boomed to unprecedented heights. If you wonder why six of the ten wealthiest counties in America are suburbs of Washington, it’s because as government grows, so does the influence industry — and earmarks are its currency.
When I was elected to Congress in 1998, I came to Washington full of ideas about how to balance the budget, grow the economy, and expand opportunity for all Americans. But I quickly realized most of my colleagues spent their time on earmarks. Essentially, members who would toe the line for party leadership were given a certain allotment of money — based on their seniority and fundraising for their party — to endear themselves to constituents back home and lobbyists who funded their campaigns. So rather than working for the good of all Americans, Congress was almost exclusively focused on parochial projects and powerful special interests in Washington.
Defenders of earmarks always argue that this is all fine. Congress should direct spending. It’s their constitutional role. And after all, they say, earmarks only compose a tiny fraction of overall federal spending. So what was the big deal? Put this way, earmarks do seem harmless, in theory (kind of like small bribes). In practice, however, they were a disaster. While small in size, earmarks proved enormous in their corrupting power.
My friend former Rep. Tom Coburn called earmarks the “gateway drug” to big government. And so they were.
Earmarks made otherwise reasonable senators and representatives indifferent to the overall size and shape of congressional spending bills. Did a bill spend a million or a billion or a trillion? Waste, fraud, and abuse? Paid for with spending cuts or just added to our national debt? All of a sudden, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was your $2 million construction project or your $800,000 research grant, or your $300,000 downtown bike lane. Congress ballooned the size of government and our national debt while barely noticing, because all they cared about was their little crumbs from the bigger pie.
As such, earmarking dis-empowered backbench Representatives and Senators by turning them into “junkies,” dependent on their party leaders for their “fix.” It was during the earmark era that both houses started to pull themselves apart along partisan lines as never before. It’s also when the Senate started restricting its traditional debate and amendment process. It was earmarks that made 90% of members apathetic about actual legislating, enabling party leaders to centralize power, helping to create the partisan dysfunction we all dislike about Congress today.
This doesn’t even begin to expose the scandalous earmark Hall of Fame — the Bridge to Nowhere, the Teapot Museum, the Tunnel For Turtles. If you actually look at the record, earmarks were not a high minded assertion of Congress’s constitutional authority; they were the currency of corruption. And when members see it as their main job to get money for constituencies back home, they stop doing oversight and start doing favors, creating the perfect environment for ridiculous wasteful projects that should never see taxpayer funding.
Earmarks became so notorious that a wave of new Republican House and Senate members were elected in 2010 in part on a pledge to ban earmarks, which Republicans in the House and Senate did just days after the election that year. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to end the ban, yet Republicans have held the line. Thankfully, just after the 2020 election, Republicans renewed their earmark ban by voting to adopt rules that contain the ban in the House and Senate Republican conferences.
Conservatives should be especially resistant to bringing back earmarks in today’s political environment. In the 1990s and early 2000s, what congressional leaders “bought” with their earmark bribes was bigger spending bills that grew government and the national debt. But if Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer bring back earmarks in 2021, it won’t just be to pass a bloated highway bill or plus up the budgets of a few federal departments. It will be to buy moderate Democrat votes for radical woke extremism: taxing churches and gun-owners, amnesty for illegal immigrants, funding abortion and defunding police departments, forcing the 1619 Project into our schools and racialist indoctrination into our human resources departments.
Earmarks were a bad enough idea before the Left went insane. Today, earmarks will be more than a gateway drug to big government; they will facilitate more cancel culture, more censorship, more anti-American woke cultism.
As Nancy Reagan once put it: “Just say no.”
Jim DeMint is a former U.S. Senator from South Carolina. You can follow him on twitter @JimDeMint
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