Washington • Some members of Congress are advocating a plan to bring back earmarks, the pet project funding inserted into budgets by members of Congress in years past that became a symbol of pork barrel spending and the subject of criminal charges.
The new push comes with more transparency on the potential earmarks — renamed as community project funding — as well as guidelines to prevent the scandals that prompted a ban on the line-item spending, a point advocates of the proposal say will ensure taxpayer dollars won’t be abused.
“The idea about members knowing their districts best, really resonates with us," Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview.
“And we work on a bipartisan basis in order to keep government funded and to make sure that the priorities of our communities are met,” Aguilar added. “My strong belief is that that's best served when members have the opportunity to direct resources back to their communities.”
But Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and others are concerned that bringing back earmarks will only add to the nation’s spending binge and prioritize pet projects over need.
“It’s the worst idea,” McAdams said this week. “It just leads to reckless spending, out-of-touch spending and look, I think we need to clean up Washington dysfunction and not go back to business as usual.”
Earmarks were long a staple of congressional budgets, a way for a senator or House member to bring home the bacon in the form of a community center, a road or airport funding.
Then-Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican who served on the Senate Appropriations Committee, frequently bragged about the slew of projects he was able to push through. While other members of Congress may slip in a project here and there, Bennett issued press releases.
But a series of scandals doomed the process, including the infamous effort to carve out $400 million to build a bridge in Alaska to connect an island of 50 people to the mainland.
It was derided as the “bridge to nowhere,” and helped lead — along with criminal charges against members of Congress for funneling money to special interests or trading earmarks for bribes — to the end of the line-item projects.
Earmarks were jettisoned in 2011 and the Senate and House have both passed rules that essentially prohibit them.
That could change as the House begins writing budgets for the coming fiscal year and supporters of reviving earmarks in a reformed way say there's a bipartisan effort to allow Congress to divvy up taxpayer money, not agencies inside the executive branch.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is a fan.
“No executive branch official knows a district and its needs better than that district’s representative,” Hoyer testified before a House committee last year. “I believe it is time to bring earmarks back with the reforms Democrats instituted.”
That includes transparency, such as a listing on a public website, and accountability, including limits on where the money can flow.
Aguilar says the right approach to a reformed earmark process would ensure the the public, i.e., voters, get to decide if a member of Congress is doing the right thing.
“I understand some of the issues that have happened in the past and there need to be sufficient guardrails in place,” Aguilar said. “But I still think — my overarching belief is that members of Congress know their districts best and we should be the ones to help direct resources to our communities rather than Washington.”
McAdams, a freshman Democrat, says he understands the sentiment of the earmark proposal but he also sees the potential for problems down the road.
“I'm not opposed to Congress having an appropriate role in directing how taxpayer dollars are spent,” McAdams said. “But what I would want to see is that we are doing it for the highest need in an evidence-based way, not just spending it to increase the popularity of politicians.”
“I think that’s how it’s been used in the past,” McAdams continued. “It’s either, you know, to increase their popularity or to support donors. And I just think that’s exactly what people hate about Congress and to go back to that is a big mistake.”