Congress

Are Earmarks Exactly What a Dysfunctional DC Needs to Function Again?

Labeled “pork” by critics, hand-selected hometown projects are getting funded by Congress again after a decadelong ban. And there are signs they’re helping ease Washington gridlock.

“Earmark” was a dirty word for many years around the Capitol, with everyone from John McCain to Mitt Romney to Barack Obama condemning them at one time as wasteful Congressional spending. Earmarks are typically hometown projects, like a bridge, airport or museum, that lawmakers slip into bigger bills so the money for the project is guaranteed.

After a decadelong absence, Congress has brought earmarks back, now called “community project funding,” and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hand-picked allocations made their way into the recent $1.5 trillion government funding bill signed into law by President Biden earlier this month.

Through one lens, earmarks look like taxpayer waste, awarding government funds to well-connected institutions on a basis of loyalty, rather than merit. But through another lens, earmarks are a way for America’s legislators, community organizations and local governments to wrestle a little bit of control away from the president and executive branch in deciding how federal tax dollars are spent.

In an era of D.C. dysfunction, many are also now calling earmarks a necessary lubricant to get Republicans and Democrats working together again to keep the government running, and to eliminate the all-too-common negotiating tactic of threatening government shutdowns.

This year's earmarks range from sewer improvements to road projects to museums and transit facilities, and all requests had to follow new guidelines for vetting and transparency. But that wasn’t enough to get everyone in Washington cheering their return.

Why are they called “earmarks?”

The word “earmark” comes from the tags put on the ears of livestock to indicate ownership, according to Merriam-Webster.

Similarly, congressional earmarks — specifically-allocated funds for projects that do not go through the standard administrative request process — are typically pushed by a single or small group of Congress members.

Why were earmarks banned in 2011?

An earmark ban was a priority of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential run, and when Republicans used President Obama’s 2009 stimulus and Affordable Care Act bills to take back the House in 2010, it became a focal point for Republicans’ austerity measures.

Obama endorsed earmark reform immediately after the 2010 election, and the following year, the Republican-led Congress agreed to eliminate earmarks altogether.

When Democratic leadership decided to bring earmarks back in 2021, many Republicans cheered the idea as a method to form more bipartisan consensus, as well as wrestle power away from the Biden administration.

“What’s been confirmed in my five years in Congress is there is so little opportunity for bipartisanship,” said Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.). “I think we actually harmed those efforts by doing away with our Article One responsibility ... to appropriate and decide how [tax] money is going to be spent.”

“Would you rather me and my colleagues in Congress decide where this money is going to go and how it's going to be spent, or [the] president?" he added.

But some Republicans chose not to request earmarks out of principle, with some voting against the entire $1.5 trillion government funding bill.

How is “Community Project Funding” different from the old earmarks?

Earmark supporters and critics alike applaud the added transparency and limits put on new earmarks.

No longer can politicians direct tax dollars into the hands of a friendly company; they can now only go to local governments, agencies and nonprofits.

No longer can earmarks be dropped into a bill by a Congressional committee in the dark of the night; they all have to be posted in advance so there is an opportunity for the public to review them.

And no longer can earmarks run up a limitless taxpayer tab; they are limited to just 1% of the federal government’s discretionary budget.

Some estimates put the tab for the more than 4,000 earmarks in this year’s funding bill at $8 billion, approximately 0.1% of all federal government spending in fiscal year 2022. That’s less than half the cost of the 10,160 earmarks identified in the 2009 federal budget.

“It's a much more controlled process that we're going to go through,” Rutherford said. “You have to have transparency and accountability and ... you have to show community support for whatever it is that you're asking for.”

The argument against earmarks

“Earmarks are corrupt, costly and inequitable,” argued Tom Schatz, president of nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste. “Earmarks entice members of Congress to vote for large spending bills that they might not otherwise vote for.”

Schatz and Citizens Against Government Waste have spent decades documenting earmarks and advocating for banning them. The organization contends earmarks prioritize well-connected institutions over those that may be more deserving.  

“It is an inequitable way to provide funds for what turns out to be mostly local projects that never would have been funded, except for an earmark,” Schatz said.  

Citizens Against Government Waste and other watchdog groups have argued the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) signed into law by President Biden last year should supply plenty of funding for necessary projects.

“Projects should be funded based on merit and based on the formulas that Congress has approved, including those in the infrastructure bill,” Schatz said. “If members of Congress don't like the way these projects are being funded by any administration, they should change the formula so that everybody has an equal chance to get the money based on need, not based on power.”

Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s national political editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.