Just Don't Call It an Earmark

Congressional Republicans ended earmarks in 2010, but realized that gave the power to prioritize spending to the Obama administration, causing some conservatives to rethink — and rework — their decision."What's in it for me?"  That's been the time-honored question asked for centuries by politicians in the midst of heated negotiations.

Up until the last four years, one direct incentive Congressional leaders could use to cajole extra votes came in the form of earmarks. Members fought for and secured earmark dollars for local transportation and water projects, university research and economic development to address the needs of their district and solve local challenges.

The practice of earmarking also ensured federal resources were distributed across the country — from small rural communities to big metropolitan cities. Using earmarks as an incentive to support broader legislative compromise, congressional leaders could grease the gears to move legislative packages that weren't perfect but kept the government trains moving on time. It's a process that worked for decades. 

After the GOP wave election of 2010, the practice of earmarking came to an end.  Many new House GOP Members ran on a platform of eliminating wasteful spending — with earmark spending first and foremost in their crosshairs.

One unintended consequence many Republicans failed to aniticipate was how eliminating earmarks would change the balance of power in DC.  With earmarks gone, all grant funding decisions would reside solely with the Obama Administration, a realization that deeply annoys the most conservative Republicans. 

One pro-earmark Republican who saw this coming is Conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Here's what Inhofe recently wrote in a May 17 op-ed in the Tulsa World:

"What I warned America in late 2010 is proving true today: Eliminating earmarks has not saved taxpayers one dime. Instead our debt has increased by $4 trillion, and Congress is giving specified amounts of taxpayer dollars to the president so that he can spend it as he and his unelected bureaucrats so please. Republicans’ decision to cede power to the president through the earmark moratorium has made Congress less accountable, less transparent, and less responsible to its constituents."   

How About Congressional Oversight? 

It's taken some time, but after four years Congress is starting to develop ways to exercise renewed influence over the spending process. Two bills attracting overwhelming bipartisan support will require more congressional input and oversight over grant project selection. It's no surprise the two bills are infrastructure measures that typically would have been flooded with earmarks — the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the Transportation Reauthorization bill.

WRDA will be the first bill since the earmark ban to establish a creative process for project approvals through congressional review. The legislation is expected to pass this week. Here's how it is supposed to work: 

The Corps of Engineers will generate a list of projects based on local stakeholder submissions. The Corps will determine which projects are eligible and then submit the entire list to Congress.  At that point, Congress will make the final selection of awards. Technically, since the Corps is submitting the list to Congress, these projects are no longer considered earmarks. By definition, the project list was generated by the Administration, not Congress. Thus, it's not an earmark. Simple, but effective. Pretty clever, huh? 

The second example is from the Senate's proposal to fund the Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) account.  Like the popular TIGER program at the Department of Transportation, PNRS will fund large-scale transportation projects across the country.  However, the new legislative language will give Congress 30 days to review projects selected by the Department of Transportation before they are awarded. Should Congress object to projects on the list, Members could vote to remove them and block funding. It's a subtle shift, but over time this new process will give Members of Congress significantly more control over the Department of Transportation and grant awards. The legislation passed out of committee unanimously.

With the pendulum swinging ever so slightly back to Congress, I'll leave it to Senator Inhofe to put these legislative maneuvers into its proper perspective. 

"Our Founding Fathers foresaw taxpayer dollars being used to build a strong national security and support the nation’s commerce. They also believed these spending measures were to be prioritized by Congress, which is why James Madison outlined in the Federalist Papers that Congress was to hold the power of the purse in order to keep the power closer to the people. As one of the most conservative members of Congress, I can honestly say that no taxpayer dollars have been saved as a result of the earmark moratorium. Instead it has given more power to President Obama and less voice to the people."