Will Democrats bring back the corrupt and secretive earmarks?

Following the midterm elections, returning members of Congress and newly-elected members alike turn their focus to serving in the 116th Congress. Protecting the interests of their voters and of their constituents more broadly is central to doing so. This includes protecting their constituents’ wallets and ensuring effective and honest use of their federal tax dollars.

While Congress as a whole has spent its constituents into an additional $9 trillion in debt in the past eight-and-a-half-years, bringing today’s national debt to more than $21.5 trillion, it has at least done one thing right to protect taxpayers’ wallets. The ban on what are called “earmarks,” or requests by individual members to secure federal funding for local projects or initiatives, has stood strong, having been renewed multiple times since the House Republican Conference first passed it in March 2010.

It is undeniable that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s, R-Wisc., leadership, although intended to be in the vein of his previously debt-hawkish stature, has resulted in profligate spending of all kinds. To his credit, though, he has effectively prevented the corrupt nature of earmarks to rear its ugly head during his tenure. Now, with Ryan on his way out of office, the moratorium is set to be shattered by his successor, most likely current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Its future is uncertain, but for the sake of transparency, morality, and responsibility, it must at the very least be renewed, but should ideally be made permanent.

With times changing as fast as they do and news cycles never seeing a lack of political discourse or outrage over the hot issue of the day, it is often difficult to remember the battles that were fought yesterday or last week, let alone the battles of nearly a decade ago. The battle over earmarks is no different. The 111th Congress was the most recent Congress to experience this battle. The makeup of Congress, its staff, and its operations have since changed dramatically. It is safe to say that few truly remember how corrupt the process was.

On their face, earmarks may look appealing to members wishing to score some brownie points with local interests, especially to new members. However, representative-elects of both parties should be wary. Earmarks are a far cry from a useful tool for anyone except the politically corrupt and powerful.

In fact, in the 111th Congress, 81 of the 535 members of the House and the Senate received 51 percent of earmarks and 61 percent of earmark spending. New members, and everyone else for that matter, could only hope to get a morsel, while the secretive and inequitable earmarks process favored the few elite and those whom they wished to buy votes off of.

What does this mean in practical terms? Backroom deals to pass bad policy, which are still too secretive today as it is, would in the days of earmarks include negotiations to include funding for pet projects in member districts to coerce them into voting for legislation they would otherwise oppose.

Some called this process of coercion and bribery “greasing the wheels” for passing legislation, but this is terrible logic. Any legislation that cannot pass on its own merits is not good legislation that should not pass, and buying off votes with funding certainly does not make it better.

Pork-barrel spending that gives federal tax dollars collected from working Americans across the entire country to build local teapot museums, bridges to nowhere, or indoor rainforests in individual districts (all three real examples of past earmarks) doesn’t protect taxpayers’ wallets and also far exceeds the proper role of the federal government.

Earmarks are the currency of the swamp that Republicans in this current 115th Congress were elected to drain. President Trump has done a fantastic job of doing this in the regulatory space by increasing transparency and decreasing secretive regulatory processes and rules. It is time for Congress to increase transparency and accountability, rather than the opposite by bringing back earmarks.

Failing to continue an earmarks ban would bring back a process that is reflective of everything the public distrusts about Washington: secrecy, corruption, and disingenuousness of elected officials who are out of touch with their constituents and in the game for themselves.

This is not a partisan issue. The Earmark Elimination Act currently in both chambers has bipartisan co-sponsors. Democrats have cried out in recent months for the need for transparency in the federal government. Earmarks are a place where they can, with control of the House, make good on this rallying cry.

Both parties should constantly bear in mind the distrust that the earmarks process sows not only between members themselves, but more importantly between members and their constituents. In considering the issue of earmarks when it arises again, those who will continue serving and those who were just elected to Congress for the first time should remember how they got there. Elected to do what is in the best interest of the people who chose them to serve, they should do just that and fight to ban earmarks for good.

Sarah Anderson is a federal affairs manager for FreedomWorks.