Congressional Republicans returned to Washington with the political wind at their back and earmarks in their sights. Incoming House GOP leaders announced they would ban earmarks in the next Congress. The Senate GOP leadership was slower to react, but eventually Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, joined the chorus, even though he has been a long time defender of earmarking and secured millions in earmarks for his home state of Kentucky.
Despite the recent Republican evolution on earmarking (they are the party that significantly increased the amount of earmarks in the 90’s and 2000’s), Senate Democrats have signaled they are still inclined to continue the practice. Since Democrats maintain control of the Senate, it’s likely they will continue to insert projects in spending and authorization bills.
But now the debate will shift to the House side. The question to ask isn't whether there will be an earmark ban, but exactly what earmarks will be banned. After all, Members of Congress like to go home and cut ribbons on new highways, bridges and buildings they helped to fund. So there inevitably will be a very intense congressional debate over what constitutes a banned earmark and what remains fair game.
Tea Party favorite, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, made waves when she said the earmark ban shouldn't include transportation projects – a pretty big exception to the rule. “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district in my mind does not equate to an earmark," Bachmann insisted. I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark.”
In its recent article, "An Earmark by Any Other Name," Congressional Quarterly does a great job of providing some historical context for earmarks. It notes earmarks started as far back as 1817 when Senator John C. Calhoun, R-South Carolina, added funding for a new westward-reaching highway to a bill dealing with the Second Bank of the United States.
The 19th Century congressional record is replete with examples of directed appropriations, which came to be known as pork barreling, for highways, bridges, dams, railroads and lighthouses.
The practice took a more sophisticated turn when federal lawmakers began seeking what were called earmarks to appropriations bills.
According to CQ, the Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as “specified funds for projects, activities or institutions not requested by the executive, or add-ons to requested funds which Congress directs for specific activities.”
The Congressional Research Service has identified a form of presidential earmark as well, or a “functional equivalent,” consisting of designated spending “embedded within an agency’s spending plan before or after enactment of the agency’s appropriations.” The implication of that definition is that banning congressional earmarks would not eliminate earmarks, but simply shift them over to the White House.
Then there is the issue of how much of the sprawling federal budget is spent on earmarked projects. It’s important to note that earmarks fall under the federal budget cap and they are not “add-ons” to the approved spending levels. So even if you eliminated all earmarks, federal spending would not be reduced a penny. Rather, you would just be transferring spending decision making authority from the Congress to the Executive Branch.
But even if you could add up all the spending from earmarks and eliminate them, the reduction would amount to less than 1 percent of federal spending.
Thus, the impact on the federal budget would be minimal. But if a strict ban is ultimately enforced, many communities with legitimate projects that improve public health, transportation and safety will have one less place to go for help. In the end, the cost to the community and nation could be a lot larger.