With the election of President Joe Biden, earmarks were back on the horizon. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has long been a proponent, arguing that House members in particular are the most knowledgable federal officials about what’s needed in their home districts. Handled properly, they don’t have to be the “bridge to nowhere” debacles of past Congresses. That’s the infamous $223 million Alaksa project from 2005, proposing a bridge between Gravina Island and its population of fewer than 50 people with Ketchikan via a bridge the size of the Golden Gate bridge, replacing the ferry that ran between them. It wasn’t just the bridge, though. Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned after pleading guilty to accepting millions in bribes in exchange for earmarks.
Hoyer previewed the plan to resurrect the practice soon after last year’s election, with the unveiling of transparency measures. “Obviously, the committee is going to have to consider how they are going to do it, and I think that will largely be up to the new chair of the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee chairs and very frankly the members of the Congress,” Hoyer said back in November. “There could be a situation in which the committee could decide they don’t want to do that.”
Senate Republicans adopted an earmark ban temporarily in 2010, and in 2019, Republicans voted as a conference to permanently ban them. That wasn’t a binding vote on the Senate, so nothing has to be overturned there for Leahy to move forward in allowing them. “Chairman Leahy has been clear about his intent to restore congressionally directed spending in a transparent and accountable way as part Congress’ constitutional power of the purse,” said Jay Tilton, press secretary for the Senate Appropriations panel.
There’s a real political advantage to earmarks in actually getting stuff done in a bipartisan way in Congress. The back-and-forth trading of valuable projects in home states means deals get made and legislation gets passed. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, recalled how it worked in the past at a hearing of the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress last year. “This used to be time where everybody was ‘Hallelujah,’ I mean Republicans, Democrats, dancing, kissing. This is the time to be saved.” This ad hoc committee recommended resurrecting earmarks in its final report issued in October, though the committee officially calls them “Community-Focused Grant Programs.”
In the hearings, Brookings Institution’s John Hudak told the committee that the total ban on the earmarks was an overreaction to what was essentially a few bad apples. “Earmarks were painted as a coven for corruption, a practice reserved for the funding of needless projects to benefit the friends, supporters and donors of members of Congress. Much of this was hyperbole, as earmarking was only abused by a handful of members in the past.” He was among those arguing for their return.
How Republicans handle this once earmarks are back is the big question. Back in December, Leahy said that “there’s very quiet support for it among Republicans. There will be some opposed, but they don’t have to have earmarks if they don’t like them.” Sen. Roy Blunt from Missouri, one of the senior Republican appropriators, was circumspect about it, saying “I don’t think senators are thinking about this much until it’s clear what the House really intends to do.” That’s Blunt definitely not ruling out using the process. It’s not clear yet what Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy intends to do in the House, and whether he’ll try to impose a ban on his members requesting them.