Earmarks: The return of congressional pork?

Earmarks: The return of congressional pork?

Congressional earmarks “could be primed for a comeback,” said Ledyard King in USA Today. Recently, the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress endorsed their return, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the 117th Congress would resume using them come January. 

Earmarks, often referred to as “pork,” are spending goodies targeted to individual congressional districts or states; they are attached to broader legislation, such as a Covid relief bill or infrastructure bill, to effectively buy the support of congressmen and senators who might not otherwise sign on. They were abolished in 2011 by Tea Party Republicans after a series of scandals involving costly, wasteful projects like Alaska’s $231 million “Bridge to Nowhere.” The proposed new rules would limit total annual earmarks to about $13 billion, require sponsors to be identified, and ensure that no money goes to a private- sector recipient. 

Bringing earmarks back makes sense, said The Dallas Morning News in an editorial. Since 2011, Congress has become increasingly polarized and paralyzed. Earmarks help members compromise. And it’s not as if banning earmarks made that kind of spending go away. Now Congress simply tucks the goodies into the budgets of specific agencies as part of appropriations bills, hiding them from the public. Undoubtedly, the use of earmarks often “veers into organized bribery,” said The New York Times in an editorial. 

But lawmakers have been using earmarks to “grease the gears of government” since 1789. Now, after nine years of congressional “rigidity and gridlock,” a little pork may be needed on the menu. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is “in a tough spot,” said Alexander Bolton in TheHill .com. He doesn’t object to earmarks, but he also doesn’t want to alienate Tea Party Republicans and deficit hawks. When asked about earmarks, he said he hadn’t “given any real thought” to the topic. Reviving earmarks could help Presidentelect Joe Biden secure votes “to pass major parts” of his agenda, including a big infrastructure bill, said Erik Wasson in Bloomberg.com. But bringing them back will also be fraught with “political risk.” After years of “ballooning deficits under President Trump,” Republicans are already making noises about holding the line on spending during the Biden era. In 2022, Republicans seeking to take control of the House could accuse Democrats of “waste, fraud, and corruption.”