We Don't Need Earmarks to Get Congress Working Again

Earmarks won't pave the legislative way by helping smooth over the ideological divides that prohibit Congress from taking on big tasks.

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In this photo taken Wednesday, May 16, 2012, newly constructed roadways are being built in Fairfax County, Va. Driving onto an Interstate highway? Crossing a bridge on the way into work? Taking a tunnel under a river or bay? Get ready to pay. With Congress unwilling to contemplate an increase in the federal gas tax, motorists are likely to be paying ever more tolls as the government searches for ways to repair and expand the nation's congested highways.

As long time political observers lament the failure of Congress to get anything done, every once in a while you hear a call for the return of earmarks. Earmarks, those parochial line items that lawmakers use to dedicate funding to specific entities and projects, proponents argue, will help Congress get some of the most basic business done – like passing appropriations bills, the home to most earmarks. And, the most ardent proponents of earmarks say, paving the legislative way with earmarks might just help smooth over the ideological divides that prohibit Congress from taking on the big tasks like making entitlement programs more sustainable or fixing our transportation funding system.

What is wrong with this argument? Although Taxpayers for Common Sense has been an outspoken critic of earmarks – from the "bridge to nowhere" to defense earmarks clearly distributed by proximity to power (literally) rather than project merit, we have never argued that every project that received earmarked funds was necessarily wasteful. To the contrary, it is the process, not the projects themselves that made the earmarking system so problematic, especially in the heyday of more than 15,000 earmarks spending more than $23 billion in 2005. The overwhelming evidence is that earmarks were distributed to reward some members of Congress and persuade others to vote for bills they might otherwise not support. And that is at the root of some arguments to bring earmarks back.

But think about that for a minute: do we really want bills being passed because someone is essentially willing to sell their support in exchange for $25,000 or $2 million for a project in their district (or near and dear to the heart of one of their campaign contributors? Or themselves?) Is that the best we can expect from Congress? Legislation absolutely requires compromise – and compromises involve give and take from both sides. But if lawmakers are able to overcome objections to a legislative proposal simply because a pet project receives funding, either their objection is not very serious or they are willing to give up serious objections for minimal compensation. Neither suggests a serious commitment to the legislative process – to looking out for the best interests of both voters in their respective districts and the entire country.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

At Taxpayers for Common Sense, our criticisms of the earmarking system have always revolved around the central premise that earmarks distributed taxpayer dollars based on political muscle, not project merit. And while some projects may have been worthwhile no one could tell us if they were the best, the most important, the highest priority projects for federal investment. Moreover, we believe earmarks were a distraction from the bigger policy questions appropriators should be grappling with: when committee staff and members had to sort through more than 60,000 requests for earmarks each year, how much time could they actually devote to oversight and evaluation to determine whether agency priorities were being met? Or conducting oversight to determine whether taxpayers are getting value for their investments? Or even if the earmarks were actually going to their intended beneficiaries. Earmarks sucked the legislative air out of the room. We don't need earmarks to get Congress working again. We need a commitment from each and every member of Congress to listen to the other side, to look for common ground rather than seeking out opportunities to vilify political opponents, and to mastering the art of deal-making.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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