By Reviving Earmarks, 117th Congress Offers Hope of Bipartisan Cooperation

TRP Partner Jim Davenport and Vice President Daniel Gleason explain how restoring congressionally directed spending in a responsible and transparent manner can make meaningful progress toward bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently stated that congressionally directed spending, widely known as “earmarks,” would “likely” return in the 117th Congress. Should this pan out, it would be a massive first step toward mitigating the consistent dysfunction we have become accustomed to in the legislative process since the House adopted a ban on the practice in 2011.

The practice of earmarked spending was banned in its entirety following the Republicans’ sweeping legislative victories in the 2010 midterms. While the move’s intention was to crack down on unjustified government spending – a key pillar of the GOP’s 2010 policy platform – its results have had an adverse on the way Congress operates. The ban has done little to address the nation’s fiscal health, as Congress has not made any meaningful progress on tackling the growing national debt and deficit. Further, lawmakers were left without a mechanism to work together on areas of bipartisan support, or tangibly connect the annual spending process to specific problems in their districts, forcing the two parties to entrench into bitter government funding battles and partisan warfare.

Fortunately, Members on both sides of the aisle increasingly recognize that Congress needs more institutional levers that promote bipartisan cooperation and have revisited the idea of restoring some form of earmarked spending. In early 2020, the Select Committee on Congressional Modernization formally recommended the return of earmarks by way of a new “Community-Focused Grants Program,” which would spur funding for projects that originate from the local level. The proposal would prioritize oversight, transparency, and accountability, while also encouraging bipartisan cooperation between Members in neighboring districts for specific community projects. Previous discussions centered on returning to earmarks, have similarly carried a tone of reform and demand for a transparent process.

With appropriate safeguards put into place, Congress could make meaningful progress toward a post-pandemic economic recovery by restoring earmarks in a responsible manner. In particular, bolstering community health care programs, highway and rail projects, and water and wastewater infrastructure stand out as key areas that could be addressed swiftly in future legislative vehicles. For the incoming Biden administration, this potential rule change would also make it easier to work with Republicans and Democrats to shepherd through a comprehensive infrastructure package, thus addressing badly-needed investments and providing a catalyst for the nation’s local economies.

Regardless of whether there is a narrow Democratic majority or status quo divided government bipartisan cooperation will be needed in order to clinch significant policy wins. It is familiar territory to discuss the return of earmarks at the commencement of a new Congress. While Leader Hoyer’s comments are encouraging, it is still too early to tell whether the desire for this tool will overcome a decade’s worth of opposition. Nonetheless, Leadership on both sides can set the tone for a productive 117th Congress by coalescing behind a common-sense approach to restore and reform the power of the purse.