Predicting the future of earmarks can be a bit like peering into a crystal ball.
During his January 25, 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama declared his intent to veto any legislation that reaches his desk containing earmarks. Having worked on the issue for 22 years, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) wholeheartedly applauded this announcement.
Unfortunately, this victory might be short lived. CAGW has heard this sort of talk before. Presidential vetoes over the issue of earmarks are nothing new; President Bush made similar promises towards the end of his second term, and the earmarks just kept coming.
Further, almost immediately following this announcement, the White House released a factsheet which limited this veto threat to “special interest” earmarks. This leaves the potential for the President to determine what constitutes a “special” or “national interest” earmark. Of course, CAGW’s stance is that President Obama should treat all earmarks as equally wasteful. While some earmarks are easier to criticize than others, all exist outside of the normal, competitive budgetary process and therefore should be viewed as the same. Should Congress, following the expiration of the current continuing resolution (CR) on March 4, pass appropriations bills containing earmarks, taxpayers can expect to be on the hook for at least $8.6 billion.
Of course, earmarks are still championed by a segment of Congress. Presently, Senate Democrats are the last remaining group of politicians in Washington that have not disavowed the practice in some form. Republicans in the House and Senate agreed to a two-year moratorium on all earmarks, while House Democrats stated their intent to forgo earmarks directed to for-profit entities.
As mentioned, this has not deterred Senate Democrats. In interviews just prior to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected talk of Congress forgoing earmarks, claiming the president “has enough power already.” This will set up an interesting battle between Obama, Reid, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) following the expiration of the CR, when Congress is due to address funding for the federal government. For the record, Sen. Reid received the eleventh-most earmarks in the Senate in 2010: 158 projects costing taxpayers $223.5 million.
A separate debate presently revolves around the practice of earmarking. Some in Congress have refused to consider funding for projects such as the F-35 alternate engine to be an earmark, because money for the engine has been written into the language of bills, outside of the normal “Congressionally Directed Spending” section. While the majority of groups (including CAGW) consider the alternate engine to be an earmark because presidents for the last several years have refused to request funding for it, some in Congress disagree. Consequently, we may see appropriations bills in the future that are ostensibly “earmark free,” meaning without a “Congressionally Directed Spending” section, but still contain earmarks in other forms.
Earmarks, wherever their placement within a bill, exist outside of the normal budgetary process, and are inherently wasteful. While some of our elected leaders cling to this archaic method of directing spending, others have embraced the process of reform. It is hardly surprising that the Senate has been the slowest to change its habits, as this legislative body has historically requested the most earmarks. Where earmarks exist, the process should include as much transparency as possible. Even better, Senate Democrats should join their peers, and endeavor to ban earmarks in bipartisan fashion.