House Republicans’ Earmark Efforts Reveal Persistent Issues, Call for Complete Ban


House Republicans consistently attempt to refine the process of federal earmarks, but their efforts often demonstrate the need for a comprehensive ban.

After disputes over earmark requests for LGBT groups earlier this year, congressional leaders believe their reforms will prevent future controversies. However, the fundamental question is why these politically risky pork-barrel programs are considered worth the effort.

New Request Guidelines

In late April, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, issued guidance for representatives on earmarks (or “community project funding”). The most significant change is that nonprofits are now ineligible for community project funding in the economic development initiative account.

Multiple press reports suggest that Republican opposition to earmarks for LGBT-related groups prompted this change. Specifically, a $1 million earmark for the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia was dropped largely because of “a conservative activist found a fetish group hosts a monthly party at the community center.”

Removing this earmark showed Congress taking a stand for taxpayers and common sense. However, this specific action and the reforms Cole outlined don’t address the broader issue.

In an interview with reporters, Cole defended the nonprofit exclusion: “Some of these are unobjectionable, some of them create political problems for people. That’s just the reality of it. I shouldn’t have to have a political problem in my district because I voted for a bill that had your earmark in it.”

Yet, earmarks from nonprofits are not the only source of political issues. The notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, which elicited public outrage, wasn’t requested by a nonprofit but still caused significant “political problems” due to its wasteful nature.

The “political problems” Cole mentioned are subjective and may only become apparent after becoming public, creating unavoidable controversy.

Numerous Organizations Exempt

Cole’s Democratic counterpart, House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., criticized the new guidance. She noted that this exclusion would prevent various entities, including religious organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, veterans organizations, and senior housing, from requesting federal funds.

Politico reported that earmarks continue to be omitted from the Financial Services and Labor-Health and Human Services-Education spending bills, with the latter being the largest in the federal government. The new guidance will exempt all nonprofits from earmarks in several other spending bills, raising the question: Is it all worth the hassle?

Practical Argument Against Earmarks

Conservatives have traditionally argued against earmarks on philosophical grounds, viewing them as a “gateway drug” to more spending by incentivizing votes for large spending bills.

However, practical issues also suggest Congress can’t implement earmarks without inciting political controversy. The restrictions may prevent funding for deserving organizations in a district, while still requiring defense of questionable projects in other members’ districts.

Both philosophically and practically, Congress should reconsider its stance on earmarks. If the nearly $35 trillion debt doesn’t compel lawmakers to exercise spending restraint, perhaps the threat of another political scandal will.

Christopher Jacobs
Christopher Jacobs
Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book The Case Against Single Payer.

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