Reviving earmarks the right way: Some advice for Congress

By Zachary Courser & Kevin R. Kosar

The Democratic leadership in Congress is currently making fast moves toward reimplementing earmarks after a 10-year moratorium. This is a very positive development to re-empower legislators to direct needed federal resources to local and regional needs. As we’ve written in our recent AEI report, the earmark moratorium failed: It did not reduce discretionary spending, it increased congressional polarization, and it undermined coalition building. It also shifted more power over discretionary spending to executive agencies. All of which is why top experts on Congress supported scrapping the moratorium.

Congressional committees are asking
members to get their earmark requests in by the end of this month, and have
released preliminary guidelines on how to do so. But Congress must take care
that haste does not make waste. Any mistakes will elicit a political backlash
and efforts to ban the practice.

Via REUTERS/Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA

Based on our research, we have
a few recommendations that congressional committees should take into
consideration as they move forward.

Addressing how caps and limiting member requests may decrease the effectiveness of earmarking. The Appropriations Committee has stated they will limit earmarks to 1 percent of discretionary spending, and allow each member a maximum of 10 requests per fiscal year.

Placing a cap on earmarks may
be a way to reassure the public about spending, but it may also limit the
effectiveness of the practice if constituent and institutional needs are
greater than the cap allows. On average, earmarks comprised 2.8 percent of
discretionary spending in the three years before the moratorium. Congress
should reconsider this stringent limitation.

Additionally, the committees will need to clarify how the 10-requests-per-member limitation will be applied to multi-legislator project requests. Multi-member and multi-chamber requests were common before the 2011 moratorium. These joint requests help to forge bipartisan coalitions between chambers, within state delegations, and within regions. Under a hard cap, one request jointly submitted by two legislators will count as one request per legislator, leaving each member with nine requests. Thus, a hard cap would discourage joint requests and coordination among members. Hence, multi-member requests might be counted as one request and be split among each member’s individual limitation.

Increasing transparency and reducing conflicts of interest. Recently released Appropriation Committee guidelines direct members to post their earmark requests on their House.gov websites, and to provide a link to the committee who received the request. This is not an adequate means of tracking, recording, and reporting aggregate earmark requests. In the brief period of earmarking reform between 2007 and 2011, requests were maintained in a similar manner with no centralized, searchable database available for constituents, interests, researchers, or Congress itself to analyze. If Congress is to earn the public’s trust, it needs a clear and user-friendly means of reporting its earmarking activity. Congress should standardize the form of request and invest the resources in creating a central webpage that allows for easy public access.

Appropriations guidelines have
also expanded conflict of interest statements to require members to certify no
immediate member of their family has a financial interest in the earmark
request — and to ban for-profit entities from receiving earmarks. This is a
positive step, but does not go far enough to limit potential or perceived
conflicts of interest. Financial conflicts should be clearly defined as member
interests in business entities, property, investments, or income sources that
would benefit from the earmark. Consideration should be given to whether
political contributions and gifts from persons or organizations count as
conflicts.

Preserving a bipartisan and
institutional approach to earmarking.
There was positive news this week
from Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that earmark dollars
would be evenly split between parties. Parties
differ in their priorities for earmarks
, and ensuring that each party’s
earmarking priorities are equal and independent will help make them more
effective for constituents and the institution. Cooperation over spending
priorities will help to bring bipartisanship back into the budget process and
allow members to better address the needs of their constituents. In the name of
equity and ease of coordination, Democrats in the House of Representatives
should offer the same deal to House Republicans.

Zachary Courser is the director of the Claremont McKenna College Policy
Lab. Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.