With the momentum of the appropriations process stalled in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid is trying to bring back the grease that helps the legislative wheels roll: earmarks. It is no secret that the Senate Majority leader is a huge proponent of the specially-tailored spending provisions that have faced a moratorium in congress since 2011. “I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day,” Reid proselytized in May, right as eager appropriators got off to the fastest start in recent history.
But congressional appropriators’ optimism has faltered as lawmakers have failed to reconcile policy and procedural differences. CQ reports that the appropriations process “is close to breaking down,” and that Congress will need to rely on temporary funding measures come October unless an agreement is made.
For big-spenders like Reid, reinstating lawmakers’ ability to divert federal funds for pet projects in their districts is the solution to the problem. Reid even regards the return of the earmark as inevitable: “They’ll come back—it’s only a question of time because that’s our constitutional obligation.”
But his enthusiasm, as usual, is unwarranted. The earmark ban has been successful in reducing the number of wasteful projects and containing overall spending levels. As director for the Committee for a Responsible Budget, Maya MacGuineas, states: “The lack of earmarks is encouraging the appropriations subcommittees to do their jobs… and spend more time allocating resources based on merit.” A Wall Street Journal editorial also noted that even Congress’s $12.3 billion water resources bill (which has its shortcomings) mires in comparison to the “$23 billion porkfest” of 2007.
As this progress shows, the ban has undoubtedly been a victory for taxpayers. Heritage expert Romina Boccia explains that earmarks not only “contributed to spending on often-inappropriate (beyond the scope of government) and wasteful federal programs” but also “have a damaging effect on the budget process beyond their dollar cost,” because they encourage the circumvention of the competitive bidding process.
But that’s no matter to Harry Reid and his fellow earmark enthusiasts, such as Sen. Patty Murray (who still managed to secure carve-outs during the moratorium). By reinstating earmarks, Reid would provide incentives for members to vote for spending bills they would otherwise oppose, opening the door for greater spending. Furthermore, earmarks themselves can represent a sizable chunk of change: at earmarking’s peak in 2006, Congress produced more than 15,800 earmarks, accounting for nearly $72 billion in federal spending largely on local projects.
And even worse, they are unabashed about this misuse of taxpayer money: “I am proud of all the earmarks I have gotten for the state of Nevada,” Reid gushed.
Indeed. Those earmarks include an $18 million bridge that was conveniently located mere miles from Reid’s 160-acre property, which quickly ballooned in value. Or maybe that pride comes from Reid’s ability to leverage his access to earmarks in order to seemingly bolster his personal wealth. For example, Reid made a $1.1 million profit on a land deal brokered after his sway reversed a local zoning board decision in a county that had sought earmarked funds from his office.
These practices show that earmarks not only provide incentives for members of Congress to vote for greater spending, they also present seemingly disinterested lawmakers an opportunity for self-enrichment while bringing home pork-barrel spending. Congress will always encounter difficulties in the spending process—reneging on the progress made by the earmark ban is not the answer.