I’ve never been able to figure out why Congress seems so interested in giving up power. When you’re sworn in as a member on Capitol Hill, you take an oath to uphold the Constitution, which places Congress first in the firmament of national governance and makes it co-equal to the presidency. Yet over the years, members of Congress have repeatedly handed the executive branch more power, in everything from going to war to budget-making to designing the specifics of financial-industry reform.
Capitol Hill’s latest exercise in self-shrinkage is its proposed ban on earmarks. These are the moves by individual legislators to direct federal dollars — usually in the form of spending or tax breaks — to specific projects, interests, or companies. The unsuccessful attempt to fund Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” was through an earmark. On the other hand, earmarks were used to develop the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the Human Genome Project, and the Predator drone missile. They also may well have helped fund the highway improvement you drive to work on, the flood control project that protects your home, or the federal contract that keeps some of your neighbors employed.
You would think, given the rhetoric we’ve been treated to recently on earmarks, that they’re a significant part of federal spending. Not even close. As Daniel Inouye, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, pointed out recently, earmarks make up less then one-half of 1 percent of total federal spending. We have a $1.3 trillion deficit, he told fellow senators, and “if we accept this proposal to eliminate all earmarks and take the second necessary step of actually applying the savings to deficit reduction, the total deficit for the United States would still be $1.3 trillion.”
There is no question that the earmark process has been misused and abused over the years. Members have curried favor with powerful constituents, steered federal funds to prominent campaign contributors, and supported projects whose benefit to their districts, let alone their country, was dubious at best. All of this was usually done in total secrecy.
But any dispassionate look at earmarks would suggest that most of them have been useful and defensible. Over the last few years, moreover, Congress has made the earmark process more transparent, detailing members’ requests so that the names of their sponsors are public information and readily available.
This trend toward transparency should be encouraged — indeed, I would argue that if you want to sponsor an earmark, you should also be willing to stand up in your chamber and defend it in the face of an up-or-down vote, rather than allow it to be slipped into some massive spending bill where it disappears from sight. Congress needs to make progress on this front, just as it could do a better job of figuring out where a particular project ought to fit in terms of national priorities — and not simply allow it to rise to the top because the member supporting it has seniority. Still, these ought not be fatal flaws.
The most important argument in favor of earmarks is that they give members of Congress — the people in the federal government who are most intimately familiar with the needs of their home districts and states — the ability to make sure that needed projects get attention. Because make no mistake: money on roads, bridges, transit projects, sewer lines, flood-control projects, and community centers is going to get spent. The only question is whether the decision on where it’s spent gets made in at least some cases by our elected representatives, or exclusively by federal bureaucrats who may or may not be familiar with the communities they’re affecting.
During a recent debate over the proposed earmarks ban, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin had this to say: “When a federal agency announces that a facility should be built in Nebraska rather than Texas or Alabama or whether a defense contract should go to a company in Colorado or Arizona rather than Rhode Island or Ohio, there may be no accountability to voters for those decisions. The employees of federal agencies are … good people, but they are not elected. They do not meet with constituents. They cannot possibly understand the needs of local communities as well as those who stand for election.” He’s right.
In the end, then, the debate over earmarks is not about improving the federal deficit, it’s about power over the federal purse-strings and whether to give the president and the federal officials who work for him exclusive power to decide where money gets spent. If Congress yet again opts to diminish itself while strengthening the president, you’ve got to wonder how much further Congress will go in handing over more power to the president and rejecting its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.