Groundwork Being Laid for Return of Earmarks, or Congressionally Directed Spending

Republicans in the House of Representatives are slowly moving forward with plans to resume use of earmarks, which are being rebranded as congressionally directed spending. The House Rules Committee plans to review the issue in the months ahead and issue a recommendation on whether to continue the current ban on the practice or allow it to resume. 

Republicans in the House of Representatives are slowly moving forward with plans to resume use of earmarks, which are being rebranded as congressionally directed spending. The House Rules Committee plans to review the issue in the months ahead and issue a recommendation on whether to continue the current ban on the practice or allow it to resume. Representative Pete Sessions (TX), Chair of the Rules Committee, will hold hearings at which members, experts, executive branch officials and others will advocate for whether or not the practice should return. Rep Sessions has stated that with the executive branch controlling $18 billion of discretionary funds, members of Congress are interested in exercising a greater level of control and direction over spending as well. Their recommendations are expected prior to the Fourth of July Recess, likely too late for the spending bills for the second half of Fiscal Year 2017 which must be completed by the end of April.

Earmarks, or congressionally directed spending, were banned in 2011 when Speaker John Boehner assumed office. In mid-November 2016, there was popular support in the House to reinstate the practice but the movement was crushed by Speaker Paul Ryan with support from then President-elect Trump. A return of the practice could be a significant benefit to states that are struggling to fund necessary repairs to existing infrastructure, as well as build for current and future needs.  The practice was lampooned as wasteful for many years and tarnished by projects considered wasteful outside of where they were to be built. A key example of this is the 2005 “Bridge to Nowhere,” which would have connected a population of 50 Alaskans on a small island to the mainland at a cost of almost $400 million.

While some instances of earmarks are difficult to justify, many, if not most, supported routine state and local needs strongly championed by their communities. These include university facilities, roads, bridges and other public service or utility projects. On January 17, 2017 officials in Illinois celebrated the completion of more than a decade of work to widen and improve the safety of Illinois Route 29. The project was made possible in part due to congressionally directed funding during the early stages of work. During the ceremony Congressman Rodney Davis stated that he was inspired to support the project after witnessing a fatal accident on the previously dangerous road decades ago. In his remarks, Congressman John Shimkus stated “this project, many years in the making, is an example of how congressionally directed spending can help state and local leaders make necessary and important infrastructure improvements.”

If successful, the return of the practice could provide a significant release valve for state leaders under immense pressure to fund an ever growing list of critical repair and construction projects and little apatite among their constituents for any new taxes to fund such projects. If the practice is reinstated in the House, similar changes would have to be made in the Senate, where support for such a measure has not been as vocal in recent months. 

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