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Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are starting to quietly defend earmarks, three years after Congress banned the practice because members said it wasted taxpayer dollars during a time of trillion-dollar deficits.
“We have a moratorium, so we’re living by that,” said Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. But his thoughts, though not fully articulated, are friendlier toward earmarks than the defenders of the moratorium. As he put it, “I see it very differently.”
Shuster acknowledged the bad reputation that earmarks—federal dollars directed to local projects—have earned in years past. And he didn’t go so far as to explicitly say that earmarks have a legitimate role in Congress, or that the House should drop the ban. But he also didn’t dwell on the negative side, noting the practice could be helpful to legitimate projects, “as long as there’s transparency and it’s not done in the dark of night.”
Leaders on the Transportation Committee are keenly aware of exactly how earmarks can be used (and abused). Geography has played a huge role in the committee’s jurisdiction over roads and waterways, making earmarks integral to most bills before the ban was put in place in 2010. The last time Congress passed a full-scale reauthorization of the highway bill eight years ago, under the chairmanship of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, it included some 6,300 earmarks. The last time Congress reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act in 2007, under then-Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., it contained almost 900 earmarks.
In interviews with National Journal Daily, Oberstar, Young, and former Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., struck a similar tone to Shuster’s. All four voiced the same argument: If Congress doesn’t earmark the money to go somewhere, agencies in the Obama administration will.
“I think continued abuse by the executive branch will lead people back to responsible designations by Congress and a priority of projects,” Mica said. “At some point, things will turn around and come back. When people abuse either one, whether it’s executive branch or Congress, there is a rebellion, and that took place with earmarks.”
Old-timers on the panel say earmarks were unfairly vilified. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., noted that earmarks made up only 6 or 7 percent of the 2005 highway bill. Other lawmakers in both parties who sit on the Transportation Committee have articulated similar arguments.
“The word ‘earmark’ has associated with it [a] sort of frivolous congressional or political decision-making,” said Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, R-Wis. “If you eliminate earmarks but then substitute frivolous or arbitrary administrative decision-making, people don’t like that either. But someone has to make decisions.”
Young has consistently supported earmarks, despite the ban. And that support has brought him some notoriety in years past. In 2005, while crafting the last full reauthorization of a transportation bill, then-Chairman Young successfully added almost $1 billion worth of earmarks for projects in Alaska, including an earmark worth $230 million to build a bridge from the Alaskan mainland to a sparsely populated island (albeit with Alaska’s second-largest international airport). It became known as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
A political slogan symbolizing Washington’s wasteful spending was born, and earmarks began their demise. Lost in this debate was the fact that earmarks made up a minuscule fraction of the federal budget, less than one-half of 1 percent.
Today, Young says Congress’s passing of legislation sans earmarks, as the committee is trying to do now with the waterways bill, is an affront unless lawmakers come up with an alternative that keeps power away from the administration.
“I’m not going to be part of a bill that will not retain power back to Congress,” Young said. “I’m fed up with this idea that we’re ceding power. Why the hell are we congressmen?”
Young is so far supporting the waterways bill that Shuster and ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., are working on together. Shuster is grappling with the inherent difficulty of writing a bill without earmarks for a measure that was once composed almost entirely of earmarks. His aides are tight-lipped about how he plans to do it.
“I have to make sure that I explain to my conference that if you do it in a new way—as opposed to the way we used to do it—we will cede our power to the executive branch,” Shuster said at a March speech at the National Waterways Conference.
These arguments are apparently not persuading leadership to change course. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio—a staunch opponent of earmarks—does not plan to lift the moratorium.
“The House earmark ban will continue, and any bill brought to the floor on WRDA or other topics will have to be consistent with the earmark ban,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal-budget watchdog group, said going back to earmarks would not solve the problem Congress faces on measures like the waterways bill.
“The idea that we should go back is like saying, ‘Hey, I’m pulling the milk out of the refrigerator and it’s spoiled. I’ll put it back in, and maybe it’ll be fresh tomorrow,’ ” said Ellis, who has been working on waterways legislation and related bills since 1998.
The biggest example of Congress passing a traditionally earmark-laden bill free of earmarks was the two-year transportation bill that President Obama signed into law last year. That was the first transportation bill Boehner voted for, precisely because it was the first one done without earmarks since he joined Congress. Mica says the measure included strong policy reforms that made up for the lack of earmarks. His Democratic counterpart is skeptical.
“It was a tepid, Band-Aid type of approach only two years in length,” said Rahall, lamenting that the lack of earmarks prevented the passage of a stronger bill and ceded congressional power.
“Is that what my deficit hawks want?” Rahall asked rhetorically. “The man they hate the worst in this town to get more power by reneging on the prerogatives of members of Congress?”