After enacting 93,000 earmarks at a cost of $200 billion over the past decade, lawmakers are finally taking the first steps to rein them in. First, House Democrats hinted they may announce a moratorium on earmarks to for-profit companies (while retaining them for non-profit organizations and state and local governments).
Then, not be outdone, the House Republican conference today announced that they will not seek any earmarks in this year’s budget.
This is a strong positive development. Earmarks distribute government grants by politics rather than by merit. Instead of submitting a strong application to a federal agency, grant-seekers are often forced to hire lobbyists and make campaign donations. This corrupting process has resulted in multiple federal investigations, one of which concluded with a Member of Congress going to prison.
Reducing earmarks will not directly reduce the amount of money available for grantees. Instead, it will empower federal agencies to select grantees through a merit-based application process. For other programs, it means more funding will instead be distributed to state and local governments, who can better decide where to repair a road or how to revitalize a neighborhood than politicians in Washington D.C.
However, more work must be done. House Democrats still must agree on their earmark plan. Their plan should also be expanded to include non-profit organizations (who would also benefit from a system that distributes grants by merit rather than politics) as well as state and local governments (who should be able to receive their federal funds without the micromanagement of earmark instructions). The Senate should follow suit with a moratorium as well.
In addition, President Obama should sign an Executive Order banning all “phone-marks.” Phone-marking occurs when a lawmakers tries to circumvent an earmark ban by directly calling federal agencies and demanding that certain favored groups receive federal grants. Because they leave no paper trail, phone-marks are even less accountable than earmarks.
House Republicans and Democrats should be commended for moving away from earmarks. Its time for the rest of Congress and the White House to follow their lead.