Bacon is back on the congressional menu.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are planning on returning earmarks ― often derided as pork-barrel spending ― to congressional spending bills, a move leaders hope will create new opportunities for bipartisan cooperation but will almost certainly draw ire from small-government groups.
“Chair DeLauro supports Member-directed funding for community projects,” said Evan Hollander, a spokesperson with the House Appropriations Committee, which is charged with doling out federal funds. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, is expected to make an announcement about earmarks in the coming weeks, Hollander said.
Earmarks, sometimes referred to as congressional pork, are federal dollars requested by lawmakers tacked on to legislation for special local projects in their districts. They have a long and fraught history in Washington and were banned in 2011 after several high-profile corruption scandals.
But in recent years, lawmakers have tried to rebrand the practice of earmarks to “member-directed spending” or a “Community-Focused Grant Program” — a much more innocuous-sounding practice that leans more toward lawmakers being able to win money for a new post office, rather than hundreds of millions of dollars for a private project an industry lobbyist sold them on.
Democrats still haven’t said what restrictions they will put around earmarks. Punchbowl News, which first reported the return of earmarks Monday morning, noted the funding would be limited to nonprofits and localities, but not be allowed for private companies. Hollander declined to comment on those specifics, saying only that an announcement was forthcoming.
Earmarks are usually seen as deal sweeteners. It’s a simple political trade: Party leadership convinces lawmakers to take difficult votes, and in exchange they get to go back home with a big check for that much-needed bridge, community center or a sheriff’s office, handing them an easy political win.
They’re a very useful tool for party leaders to keep their lawmakers in line on contentious policies. And with razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrats need unified ranks. And lawmakers generally really like them because, if used correctly, they can directly benefit constituents’ needs.
“I think that members of Congress know their districts best, and with the right guidelines, they are very effective in addressing local needs and transparent enough to protect against abuse.”
In a Congress where most of the big legislation — including the massive government spending bills — is crafted by party leadership behind closed doors, earmarks give lawmakers something tangible to go home with.
The White House declined to comment on whether it supported the return of earmarks. Former President Barack Obama opposed earmarks while in office.
Some former members of Congress in both parties have pointed to earmarks as a way to grease the wheels of bipartisan cooperation in some instances, and make it easier for Congress to pass critical appropriations bills.
“By banning earmarks, we have made actually passing legislation through both chambers, already a herculean task in a Washington mired in partisan gridlock, a virtual impossibility,” the late Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican and close ally of former House Speaker John Boehner, wrote in a Roll Call op-ed in 2013.
Still, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical that additional infrastructure will be a panacea for partisanship when many voters see politicians of the opposing party as an implacable enemy and don’t want their elected representatives to compromise.
“Politics is now an existential fight for who gets to define America,” Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “That fight will not be won or lost on getting more money for bridges or highway off-ramps.”
In the early to mid-2000s, some memorable misconduct involving earmarks made lawmakers question the practice. Lobbyist and now convicted felon Jack Abramoff’s bribery schemes implicated several top Republican leaders over their use of this federal funding perk. A similar but unrelated case sent California lawmaker Duke Cunningham to jail. Even the public works projects themselves came under scrutiny, most notably the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” — a $223 million earmark Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) secured in 2005 to connect a tiny town of 8,000 to a nearby airport. The bridge, which became a talking point in the 2008 presidential race, was never built, and funding for the project was ultimately pulled in 2015.
In 2007, Democrats, in control of the House, passed reforms requiring lawmakers to disclose their earmark requests. But in 2011, Republicans banned them altogether. Then-House Speaker John Boehner said requesting earmarks was akin to robbing the Treasury. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan upheld the moratorium.
But 10 years later, some House Democrats are enthusiastic about bringing them back.
“I think that members of Congress know their districts best, and with the right guidelines, they are very effective in addressing local needs and transparent enough to protect against abuse,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said. Pocan was part of the House Select Committee on Modernization, which recommended bringing back earmarks last Congress.
The recommendations said the return of earmarks would “reduce dysfunction in the annual budgeting process ... that supports meaningful and transformative investments in local communities across the United States.” The committee called for transparency and accountability measures to be added to quell corruption concerns.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) was so excited about the prospect of earmark spending over text messages he responded with the “100” and bullseye emojis. Though he noted, Democrats shouldn’t allow the funds to go toward for-profit entities.
Whether earmarks will ultimately come back in part depends on what Republicans agree to. Senate and House Minority leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ultimately must sign on to government spending legislation.
While Republicans got rid of earmarks — voting to ban them from their party’s rules just last year — they aren’t uniformly against them. There’s bipartisan understanding that getting rid of earmarks didn’t actually get rid of the corruption.
“I don’t think that abuse has been removed, it’s just been shifted,” Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said at a congressional hearing on the subject last year.
And notably, when former president Donald Trump called on Congress to bring back earmarks in 2018, despite being laughed off by his own party, behind closed doors there was some appetite among rank-and-file Republicans to heed their president’s advice.
But the conservative voices that have long griped about the additional spending remain loud on the issue and have already cried foul of the idea.
“Democrats want to bring back earmarks for one simple reason: with razor-thin majorities they want to use your tax dollars to corruptly buy votes for their radical agenda including amnesty, federal takeover of elections, gun control & funding abortion,” former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who runs the Conservative Partnership Institute, wrote on Twitter.