An earmark is defined as a “provision in Congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program, or organization.” While Congress currently has a moratorium on the “formal” earmark process, informal earmarking still happens. The banning of earmarks was a popular campaign theme over the past several election cycles. Candidates from both parties have derided the use of these “special projects” as representative of everything that is wrong with Washington, DC. While it is true that the process was badly in need of reform and transparency, an outright ban on earmarks is not a realistic long-term solution.
The earmark moratorium was aimed at improving the process of approval for annual appropriations bills, increasing accountability, and providing more transparency. However, it can be argued, the ban has accomplished none of these objectives. Congress has been unable to pass spending bills with any regularity (some say the lack of “sweetners” has hindered horse-trading and compromise), and there is no process in place for knowing when Members of Congress support or oppose funding for specific programs in a spending bill.
According to Citizens Against Government Waste, “the ban is showing results… the number of earmarks dropped by 98.3 percent, from 9,129 in fiscal 2010 to 152 in fiscal 2012, and the cost of such projects fell by 80 percent, from $16.5 billion to $3.3 billion, the lowest amount since 1992.” However, Members of Congress continue to work to advance projects for specific companies or organizations in their home districts outside of the earmark process and without the benefit of a formal disclosure process.
In a July 26, 2012 Bloomberg News report titled “Earmark Ban Failing to Stop Lawmakers Requests for Spending,” “Even with a two-year ban on earmarks, or pet projects that often can’t be justified as national priorities, the [recent Defense Appropriations bill] was the latest evidence that Members of the U.S. Congress are still finding ways to deliver the goods for their constituents.”
A Bloomberg News editorial, “Bring Earmarks Back,” offered a new and interesting approach to the earmark process, which would include the disclosure of the names of the project sponsor, a written rationale for the funding request, a statement that the Member of Congress will not benefit financially from the project, and support from another Members of Congress from the other political party.
Earmarks are not going away completely, but a formal and open process could ensure funding is going towards worthwhile initiatives.