This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on January 19, 2018.
When asked if earmarks are making a comeback at a press conference last week, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) responded, “conversations are making a comeback.” But if Congress is serious about improving the lives of Americans by limiting the power of Washington and ensuring faith in our system, then this is a conversation that needs to end as quickly as it begins.
Earmarks are little more than taxpayer-funded favors for particular constituencies. Before they were finally banned in 2010, these favors, usually negotiated in backroom deals and closed-door settings, were used to buy off members to pass massive spending bills with “bipartisan” support. Representatives and senators would then brag about “bringing home the bacon” to their constituents — even though that bacon was jeopardizing the prosperity and diminishing the freedoms of those very constituents.
Whether it was the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska, the $3.4 million turtle tunnel in Lake Jackson, Florida, or the teapot museum in rural Sparta, North Carolina, there was no shortage of examples of Congress doling out our money for wasteful projects.
It was all to buy votes on larger pork-filled legislation that accelerated government spending, cemented federal power, and expanded the administrative state.
Today, America is currently staring down an incomprehensible $21 trillion debt — a number that does not include unfunded liabilities from entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. The very last thing the American people need is for Congress to make spending our hard-earned tax dollars easier and less transparent by undoing one of the very few process reforms Congress has enacted in our lifetimes.
Former Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) helped spearhead the effort to ban earmarks by enlisting the support of grassroots activists and everyday Americans rightly appalled at the cronyism that was pervading the halls of Congress. When the earmark ban was finally implemented, it was lauded as a monumental process reform for how Congress conducts its business.
What Congress is discussing, and what the administration seems to be flirting with, is a return to Washington’s favorite currency: cronyism.
Instead of finding ways to grease the skids to grow government and expand their power, Congress should focus on building off recent successes in rolling back excessive government regulations. Thus far, Congress has successfully rescinded fifteen onerous Obama-era rules through the Congressional Review Act. They should continue that effort and focus on cutting spending, reducing the burden on American families by repealing ObamaCare, and abolishing rogue agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that make life harder on Americans struggling to make ends meet.
Indeed, many members of Congress are rightly concerned with the usurpation of their Article I power by the administrative state. Restoring balance back to the legislative branch is critical, but that cannot come from returning to an opaque and publicly derided process like earmarks.
Congress should use the Congressional Review Act more aggressively, implement sunset legislation requiring affirmative congressional approval for reauthorizing regulations, and constrain federal agencies on the front end of legislation from ignoring congressional intent when promulgating their rules.
This is the proper policy solution to the problem of executive overreach.
A return to the earmark era is not what the American people have been clamoring to see. Such a move, even under the guise of a “conversation,’ will undermine every facet of the administration’s stated agenda to drain the swamp.
Indeed, this move would put the swamp firmly — and permanently — in charge.
This is not a vision that most Americans, regardless of ideology or partisan leanings, want to see their elected leaders embrace.
Congress should be working every day to make their actions less consequential in our daily lives. They should be focused on returning power back to the states, back to the American people, and out of the hands of the K Street cartel.
Anything less is an abdication of their responsibilities, a betrayal of their promises, and a harbinger that Washington’s interests are not the same as the people it is supposed to govern.