It has been a decade since the practice of federal earmarks, or congressionally directed projects was curtailed. A decade ago we also operated in a different political environment with more civility and without as much of the bitter partisanship and vitriol plaguing our country’s political process.
As a result of the ban on earmarks, we’re allowing federal bureaucrats to decide where more than one trillion dollars should be spent each year, contrary to the Constitution giving Congress the right to make logical decisions on local and state projects. Congress rarely comes together to collaborate as it did in the days when the 12 federal spending bills were considered in regular order, negotiated collaboratively in conference committee and passed by overwhelming margins.
Today, the total federal budget is more than $4 trillion and, for Fiscal Year 2020, President Trump requested $1.426 trillion in discretionary funding. That’s likely to be about the same amount when he submits his Fiscal Year 2021 budget blueprint in a few weeks. The Constitution gave Congress (not federal agencies) the authority to raise and spend money for the federal government. The intended process was truly “sausage-making,” but it wasn’t spoiled. The art of negotiation, compromise, and working across party lines worked under these conditions.
The process and outcome under a system with earmarks would benefit our political system for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, Members representing their states and districts know far better the needs of their communities and nuances of particular projects. This will allow federal funding to flow to states and localities to serve as incubators of innovation for existing and new programs. Earmarks also level the playing field whereby these localities have a better shot at receiving much needed federal support with the assistance and advocacy of their Congressional representative. The neediest of eligible applicants cannot always compete effectively for federal support of priority programs and projects.
Opponents of the return to earmarks would argue that this would increase federal spending and effect a real concern of the national debt. In fact, congressionally directed spending didn’t intentionally increase the federal budget. Instead, Congress directed how a portion of federal allocations should be spent and allowed the remainder to be competitively awarded by agencies or through formulas outlined in authorizing language. Applications had to be submitted to the appropriate federal agency for all Congressionally-directed activities and the agencies conducted oversight and audits of these initiatives to ensure they were conducted in full compliance with congressional intent and met federal guidelines.
Past precedent shows, that the process was as transparent as possible. Members who chose to submit “earmarked funding requests” to the appropriate Senate or House Appropriations subcommittees had to meet deadlines, answer relevant questions about the need for the project and its sustainability, and declare each and every request on their congressional websites for all to see.
A greater diversity and creativity of projects (types and geography) were requested and carried out when there were earmarks versus present conditions. Federal funding is validation for a pending project and is often a magnet for other types of financial support (foundations, private dollars, public/private partnerships, as well as state and local government grants).
Local communities and innovative organizations within these communities are often beneficiaries of earmarked funds. Local or regional innovative projects could be replicated by other jurisdictions or adopted nationally via authoring legislation and future funding.
We encourage Congress to clear the path for and allow congressionally directed projects in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations process. The 10-year drought of innovation in federal funding of discretionary projects would come to an end and encourage bipartisanship and civility in this election year.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C., office of Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. He worked on Capitol Hill for 10 years, including Associate Counsel to the House Appropriations Committee.
Joshua Habursky is the Head of Federal Affairs at the Premium Cigar Association and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.