"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: