One cause of congressional gridlock over the past decade has been the banishment of earmarks. Now, the return of “member-designated projects” has helped grease the gears in the House of Representatives, allowing representatives to more effectively address the needs of their districts.
While the history of earmarks delves into the minutiae of representative democracy, it also reflects the dangers of ideologically driven government.
Representatives who adhered to tea party philosophy a decade ago targeted earmarks as a specious way to trim federal spending, and Republicans in the House banned them. Rather than having the desired impact of sharply cutting federal spending, the banishment only made Congress more dysfunctional than it needed to be.
More on that in a minute. For now, it is instructive to view how individual members’ pet projects have made Congress a more collaborative place.
For example, a recent transportation bill in the House included $11.7 million for an Interstate 5 interchange in Woodland, $5.5 million for a road reconstruction in Longview and $2.7 million for a railroad expansion in Longview.
Those items were requested by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, reflecting how earmarks allow representatives to target specific local projects in larger bills. Previously, specific projects were identified by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
According to a recent story from The Seattle Times, all 10 House members from Washington have taken advantage of the return of earmarks, requesting a total of more than $162 million from the Appropriations Committee (a 59-person committee that includes Herrera Beutler). Washington’s two senators have inserted more than $300 million in requests into proposed spending bills.
That was not possible in recent sessions of Congress. Republicans had declined to consider earmarks, pointing to outlandish overspending, such as an infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that was proposed for Alaska in 2005.
While it is easy to generate public outrage over congressional spending, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., points out that at their peak, earmarks accounted for 1.3 percent of federal spending. That realization led congressional members this year to overturn a counterproductive attack on earmarks.
As columnist George Will of The Washington Post wrote in April, “Legislative bargaining is additive: If you support my projects A and B, I will support your projects C and D. You might regret that this is a permanent driver of government growth, but you might as well regret the law of gravity. …
“If you desire a less polarized Congress, one with a more collaborative and transactional ethos, you should at least tolerate earmarks as grease that lubricates congressional gears.”
Members of Congress point out that the new version of earmarks has ethical guardrails to prevent a repeat of scandals in which members supported projects for personal gain. It also does not allow for projects directed to for-profit entities and calls for the Government Accountability Office to randomly audit some funding requests.
“What has been put forward here is something completely different because it has a level of accountability and transparency and limitation that didn’t exist previously,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, told The Seattle Times.
The result is a more functional government, with representatives better able to serve their constituents and meet the needs of their districts.