This week’s Washington Post investigative feature on congressional earmarking highlights serious—but fixable—problems with the earmark vetting process. Tuesday’s article identified $300 million in member-directed funds for projects located so close to properties of the sponsoring lawmakers that they may have benefited financially from the funding. Wednesday’s article named 16 members of Congress who had ordered earmarks for organizations or businesses that employ their own family members. Predictably, some legislators are already calling for a permanent ban on all earmarking. Although the articles raise questions that the Ethics Committees should thoroughly investigate and punish if warranted, the best solution isn’t to ban earmarks but rather to oversee them more carefully, make them completely transparent, and severely punish those who violate conflict of interest laws.
After the Bridge to Nowhere and ethics questions like those raised in the Post, why even bother to try to fix the earmark process? Because earmarks provide some of the best examples of responsive, effective, locally-driven projects that can transform communities and change people’s lives.
For every cringe-worthy earmark anecdote detailed in the Post series (and there were more than a few, for sure), any current or former member of Congress or staffer who has worked on appropriations can talk your ear off about terrific earmarked projects that have revitalized communities, saved lives, or improved local economies. Earmarks have funded hundreds of job training programs, paved roads that reduced traffic, supported the police officers protecting our streets, underwritten research on diseases, revitalized blighted neighborhoods, developed technologies to improve national defense, built libraries and schools, and given children new opportunities to learn. Every one of us has benefited from earmarks in some way. Unfortunately, a small number of worthless, even outrageous, projects have turned member-directed spending into a convenient, lazy punching bag—rather than a legitimate, important exercise of the power of the purse that Article I of the the Constitution confers on Congress.
Every earmark is hand-picked by someone elected to represent the community. Most federal money trickles into communities by way of funding formulas, grants to state and local government, or bureaucratic decision-making. Earmarks, on the other hand, are—or should be—the best expression of what a community wants for itself. Members of Congress are in constant communication with constituents, and most have a well-developed sense of unmet community needs. They use that perspective to winnow large numbers of community earmark requests down to a handful of the most important state or district priorities—of which a much smaller number are actually funded.
Frequently, that selection process leads to bipartisan collaboration. Earmarks are one of the few areas where members of opposing parties routinely work together—and in the current era of broken, acrimonious government, that may be enough reason to keep them. For example, in 2010, a bipartisan group of legislators from Minnesota agreed that the state needed to drastically improve services for its National Guard members returning from long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working across the aisle and in close cooperation with the Guard and the veterans, most of the state’s congressional delegation supported a $2 million earmark to fund counseling and other services. The earmark passed, and the program was so successful that other states replicated it.
What could the members of the Minnesota delegation have done if earmarks had been banned? Their best option would have been to call Pentagon officials and beg for the funding, a practice called “phone-marking,” when members of Congress contact an executive agency and communicate spending priorities through back channels. Phone-marking should trouble people more than earmarking: it occurs behind closed doors, leaving no public records and therefore no public accountability.
The earmarking process before last year’s moratorium was subject to much greater disclosure. Under House rules, legislators had to provide a written statement for each earmark request, detailing the name and address of the proposed earmark recipient, the purpose of the earmark, and a statement certifying that neither the member nor his or her spouse had a financial interest in the earmark. If this isn’t sufficient information, we should solve the problem by requiring disclosure of whatever additional information is necessary, not by shutting down earmarks altogether. They are too important.
One of the best days I ever spent as a congressional aide was visiting a job training program that one of my bosses helped establish with an earmark. The program, which is still operating today, prepares low-skill workers for jobs in the culinary industry, helping them escape from minimum wage jobs into union positions with a career path and wages sufficient to support families. The program was a collaboration between an enormous local union and a group of area employers who eagerly snapped up almost everyone who successfully completed the program. I visited the center on graduation day, and the excitement in that room was overwhelming. Many of the program participants were in their late 20s, 30s, or 40s and had never graduated from anything before, so it was an important occasion for them and their families. One mom explained to me that she pulled her kids out of school for the morning so that they could see her graduate, because she wanted them to believe that graduating was attainable and important. Each program participant was called forward to accept a certificate of completion and to announce the results of his or her job search, and the reaction was the same each time: enthusiastic applause from the whole audience, but the graduate’s family cheering loudly, often with little kids jumping up and down in excitement. In that moment, you could see life transform, not just for one person, but for a whole family. People were getting a shot at a better life by virtue of their own hard work . . . and a good earmark.