“As a lobbyist, I thought it only natural and right that my clients should reward those members of Congress who saved them such substantial sums with generous contributions.”
– Jack Abramoff
An earmark is a provision inserted into spending bills that sends funds to a politician’s voting district, circumventing the merit and competitive funding process. The term comes from farmers who cut the ears of their domestic livestock as ways to distinguish them from those in neighboring farms.
In 1991, the term earmark was a pejorative used to describe special interest spending by Congress to benefit them. They lobbied for federal funding to build a state pier in the budget bill to win voter support. This was the first earmark and the first time federal budget money was used to buy votes.
Earmarks are not based on merits or needs, but go to powerful politicians. Statistics show that more than half of these generous gifts go to politicians with leadership positions. This process is always open to corruption since lobbyists go after high profile people in office to pass earmarks.
“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
– Milton Friedman
Politicians who secure earmarks for their district benefit disproportionately from federal money that is taken away from the rest of the nation. Taxpayers outside that region don’t gain a thing yet they are shouldering the cost of these gratuitous political awards. This is an unorthodox political practice that has been abused for decades by incumbents for only one illegitimate purpose: to buy votes.
Spending has been out of control for decades and these gratuitous awards for darling sons and daughters as well as special interests add millions to the debt. We currently have the largest debt in history relative to U.S. GDP. President Joe Biden’s partisan stimulus bill and his erroneously named Inflation Reduction Act mushroomed our national debt to $31 trillion — the largest debt in the history of our nation.
A few years ago, a number of lobbyists and lawmakers were convicted for using earmarks for their personal gain. This ended the career of Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, who admitted that he took bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff to secure favors for Indian tribal leaders. Mr. Abramoff also illegally coerced funding for their gambling industry. He was convicted of bribery and sent to federal prison.
“They locked the prison when I arrived. There was no place to hide from media.”
Earmarks have always been a bone of contention for voters. Those who get something jump for joy while those paying for them cry government waste. They were banned in 2011 by the House Republicans amid the outcry from the Tea Party movement that demanded financial accountability.
After losing seats in 2016, it’s no coincidence why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resurrected “earmark spending.” And Democrats spent millions on projects for their districts and it bought them power and votes.
“Earmarks don’t increase spending. They just let us spend money how we wish.”
– Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Democrats claim that they reintroduced earmarks to secure votes needed to pass major parts of President Biden’s progressive wish list. They said it was necessary to bypass partisan gridlock standing in their way from spending billions of federal dollars on projects Mr. Biden included in this year’s budget.
Only a fool would believe this! President Biden destroyed the economy, and the Democrats had to buy midterm votes.
Colin Strother, a Texas-based Democratic consultant, recently said. “Earmarks can easily alter the outcome of elections since freshmen and juniors who cannot pass legislation or add budget riders have the chance to secure multiple, multimillion-dollar projects for their districts with little effort.”
Democrats realize for the past few years voters have grown weary of them using the House floor as a national stage to do anything but govern. After their losses last election, they feared they’d lose the House in the midterms. They are aware voters like “free stuff” and hedged their bets they could buy votes with earmarks and keep the House, or at least cut their losses. And that is what they did.
Every member of Speaker Pelosi’s thin Democratic House majority filed earmarks. Of the 57 House Democrats considered at risk of losing their seats during the midterms, every one requested earmarks from the House Appropriations Committee, and only a few lost their seats.
“The American people need somebody who will tell them what’s really happening in Washington.”
– Jack Abramoff
Rep. Cindy Axne, the only incumbent Democrat to secure re-election in Iowa last year, requested $10 million in earmarks. Her requests are spread over 10 projects that include improving child care and upgrading bridges and water systems. Last election, she retained her seat by less than 1%.
Democratic Rep. Colin Allred, who represents a swing district that voted heavily Republican before shifting moderately left last election, requested nearly $242 million in earmarks. The money will be used for projects that would help upgrade Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, in his district. He essentially guaranteed his re-election in a swing district that is always for sale to the highest bidder.
Republicans are ideologically opposed to this practice but are not without fault. But their requests were “meek” compared to the Democrats. This is the first year they felt that they needed to offset those that the Democrats had obtained in swing districts where they had to compete this election.
“Government spending is never equally distributed and always a burden on someone.”
– Ron Paul
Texas Senate Republican Ted Cruz said, “Earmarks are the gateway drug to excess spending.” Politicians are addicted to spending to buy votes once they are in office. Earmarks give the career politicians another vehicle to continue their free ride on American taxpayers. They kick the debt can down the road, knowing the more bones they throw to their voters the longer they’ll remain in office.
We all remember “The Bridge to Nowhere.” U.S. Rep. Don Young obtained funding to build a bridge connecting a small town and an island in his home state of Alaska. The late Republican congressman secured $223 million for the project in 2005 and continued getting money until costs for the bridge grew to $400 million by 2011. The project was abandoned a decade after it was started and is a monument to earmark failures.
Mr. Abramoff told us, “Money is a tool used to buy votes.” The Magna Carta defined the highest principle of governing as the power that appropriates public funds should not be the same power that spends them. Yet Congress appropriates funding and doles out money to party favorites for their districts. Democrats cut their losses this election by buying votes with taxpayer earmarks.
Earmarks are tax dollars used by incumbents to buy votes and keep them in power. Earmarks are simply a legal way to do nothing for your constituents for an entire term in office and buy back their support at election time.
“The earmark favor factory needs to be boarded up and demolished, not turned over to new management that may have a better eye for earmarks with merit.”
– Tom Coburn
This commentary was provided to the News-Press by The Center Square, a nonprofit dedicated to journalism.
William Haupt III
The author is Center Square contributor