It’s Time to Bring Back Earmarks

I have been blessed to have been able to work in government and politics for four decades. In my field, I have witnessed and participated in the policy making process from almost every angle. In the federal government, I worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill in both the House and Senate and was privileged to serve in the post 9/11 White House focusing on homeland security.

In Pennsylvania, I served as Governor Ridge’s Chief of Staff for six years. I handed out political literature as soon as I could walk. I have managed both a Congressional and Gubernatorial campaign. I have served on several United States Presidential campaigns.

I don’t say this to brag but to show that I have a pretty good idea as to how politics affects policy. And today, working to influence public policy as a government affairs professional, I really have seen a bit of everything.

Everything I have seen leads me to believe that we need to bring back earmarks.

Let me share just a couple of my thoughts as to why this is such a good idea. First, as a practical matter, do we really have any idea how much money it costs to simply issue a competitive federal grant? The paperwork, the well-meaning bureaucracy, the grants management, the review, the audit, the Congressional oversight, and on and on.

With a directed earmark, the project is described in legislation, and the contract is written, with all of the necessary legalities. Boom. That’s it.

My modest guess would be that the earmark would cost about 75% less to the federal taxpayer.

And earmark spending is used to fund good, specific projects. There is a misconception that members of Congress just pork barreled spending to their congressional district to pay for nothing. While this happened a few times, it was not the norm.

A member of Congress has to attach their reputation to earmarks. If your elected representative is willing to say “yes, this is a good investment of federal money in my district or state,” then it likely is good for a community, a non-profit institution, or an university.

And what’s not to like about the idea of federal funding being used to catch up on commitments to veterans? Or infrastructure investments? Earmark a health clinic in an underserved area, a new highway ramp, a mass transit station. This will start creating jobs. State and local governments have been carrying a disproportionate share of this burden for years.

Earmarks could help pass the national infrastructure bill, with creative and modern revenue models, that we talk-talk-talk about. The enactment of the total bill would be worth every dollar spent on earmarks.

One other note comparing state and federal budgeting. Governors in most states, Republicans and Democrats, work with their legislative leaders on directed spending, or earmarks. And what is the result? On time, balanced budgets. Happy constituents who see state funding invested in good local projects.

I was around when there was “regular order” in Congress. Back then, bills were authorized and funds were appropriated. Authorization bills would pass regularly and appropriation bills would fund them. The Senate and House Appropriations Committees would get things passed on time. We had real, on-time budget resolutions.

Now we lurch from one emergency short-term spending bill to the next, and we have to authorize policies on appropriations bills. The Senate and House rarely passes stand-alone legislation. Votes are too often straight party line. Last year is a glaring example. We experienced the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history. It is still left to be seen what will happen this year.

Earmarks could change this as they are often an effective negotiation tool. “If you vote for this spending measure to bring money to my home state, then I’ll vote for your legislation to support yours.” Simple as that, we could have a bill that Senate and House Democrats and Republicans can agree on. We could fund everything from energy and water spending to financial services and general government.

There are many members of Congress that privately agree with this premise. So why don’t we just do it? All it would take is the Speaker and the Majority Leader in House, along with their Senate counterparts, to say YES. Maybe President Trump and Vice President Pence would need to give their nod of approval. But that’s it.

There would be a bit of screaming in the press. Then it would be over. We could start rebuilding America, district by district. We’d create jobs and start passing important legislation again. It would save taxpayers millions on process alone. Nobody in Congress would lose their jobs because they were bringing much needed federal dollars to the communities and non-profits organizations they represent.

Yes, earmarks are in fact very good for our democracy. And we need them now more than ever.

Let’s just do it.

This article was written by Ridge Policy Group Partner, Mark Holman. For over 35 years, Mark Holman has served as a senior manager and adviser within the Federal legislative and executive branches, State executive branch, and in eight political campaigns.

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Ridge Policy Group


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