Funding of government activities begins with the passage of an appropriations bill specifying the gross sums of money that will be spent during the fiscal year. The executive branch proposes to Congress exactly how the allocated money will be spent. Congress, representing the interests of the people, then holds hearings, writes, debates and votes on bills funding specific projects or programs, or agreeing to the President’s proposed expenditures. Spending bills passed in both chambers of Congress then go to the President’s desk for signature or veto.
Where contracts are to be made with private companies to perform any such funded project, the contract is properly put to competitive bid, and the bid with the highest cost-to-benefit value wins the contract. This process is wholly transparent, is subject to public scrutiny and serves to involve rank-and-file congressional members in the process of deciding how much will be spent on which projects.
Earmarks (Em) are a perversion of the constitutional provisions for funding government. Earmarks are requests by individual congresspersons to congressional leadership that portions of the year’s total appropriated money be directed to specific entities for specific projects, bypassing the open bidding process. While the constitutional appropriations process is based on merit and cost-benefit value, Em are not merit-based, but based on seniority, state or locality, congressional district, committee assignments, party power, political connections, and perceived need for reelection campaign support
These earmark requests are often funding projects, companies, universities, organizations and individuals that are located in the congressperson’s district (bringing home the bacon), or benefit those that provide generous campaign contributions for the congressperson’s reelection and preservation in office, whether or not these entities are located in the particular district.
Proponents of congressional earmarks argue that it is the only way for Congress to specify how the allocated dollars will be spent each year, that earmarks allow Congress to fund local projects and industry, providing jobs in their districts, and that earmarks only provide for congressional dollar allocation while not increasing total spending levels.
Ems are made anonymously without public hearing, transparency or accountability, are granted by congressional leadership on a seniority/majority/party/political connections basis, are placed inside other bills at the discretion of the leadership, are not vetted, debated or voted on for their merits, and the congressperson who submits the earmark request is obligated to vote for whatever bill the leadership attaches the Em to, even if that bill entails bloated budgets or wasteful spending. In this manner, congressional leadership, controlling the very structure of Congress and every step in the process of passing bills, exerts an undue dominant influence on what Congress does each year. This Em interplay between leadership and rank-and-file members, serves to continually raise levels of government spending.
As explained above, the Constitution provides an open process for funding government activities including specific projects or programs desired by Congress; the Em process is not required for Congress to exercise its prerogative of designating how taxpayer funds will be spent. In the self-serving rush to assure each congressperson’s share of the federal pie, and to assure that the executive branch doesn’t get to spend all the money by itself, the option of not spending all the appropriated, hard-earned taxpayer money is rarely considered.
Ems to fund projects in the congressperson’s district (to garner local support for reelection) or to specific entities in exchange for campaign contributions are a corrupt mechanism to promote an individual congressperson’s interests over the interests of the American people. Bypassing the open bid process leads to government paying more than the actual value and getting lesser quality of the service or product provided, and fosters corruption behind closed doors.
The fact that earmarks are granted by congressional leadership at their discretion allows leadership to carry out their top-down agenda and control rank-and-file members, often at odds with fiscal responsibility and the goals of the people and their representatives. Leadership, seeking support for unpopular legislation, will insert many Ems into such a bill, guaranteeing the votes of those who requested the Ems, even where the individual representative may be opposed to the bill in question because of its excessive spending or other significant objections.
Government agencies estimate the direct cost of Ems at less than 2% of federal spending, and many have suggested that due to the relatively small amount of money spent on Ems, the practice should not be condemned. However, indirect and hidden costs are considerably greater and are truly significant. When major appropriations bills go through Congress, lawmakers pad each bill with excess dollars in anticipation of taking Ems further on down the line. Data showing a direct correlation between the annual costs of Ems with total annual federal spending suggests that the practice of earmarking contributes significantly to excessive government spending.
Many Ems are simply add-on expenses to bills that, without question, directly increase total spending. In other instances, involving only redirection of previously appropriated funds, projects unvetted for merit are funded by defunding other programs that had been justified on a merit basis. With the Em redirection of funding away from merit-based programs, a greater portion of taxpayer dollars is spent on non-meritorious and often frivolous and wasteful projects.
Many Ems are not even included in a bill, but in the conference reports on the bill. In this case, the Ems are given the full effect of U.S. law, despite the fact that they are not an actual part of the bill that was given public hearing, debated and voted on by Congress, and signed into law by the President. A convincing argument can be made that such Ems are illegal and unconstitutional and should be publically declared as such.
The entire system of congressional rules and structure greatly favors leadership agendas, which are often contrary to fiscal discipline and the best interests of the American people. Eliminating Ems would greatly diminish leadership power and influence; a bitter battle is likely to ensue with Washington powerbrokers desperately resisting any reduction in their influence and power despite this being a necessary component of government reform to further the interests of the American people.
The Heritage Foundation and others have called for complete elimination of Ems and total reform of the majority/seniority system congressional rules and structure with the goal of real power-sharing with rank-and-file members, full disclosure of interested party/lobbyist/lawmaker relationships, and full reporting of campaign or favored cause support by those making and receiving contributions.
Other sound proposals for government reform include the institution of term limits, moving congressional members and their retirement funds into Social Security, moving congressional members from congressional health plans to those that are available to the public, eliminating members voting on their own salary increases, and assuring that lawmakers are subject to every law they pass. The prime motivating factor for lawmakers must be the best interests of their constituents and the American people, not what’s best for self or party.