The R Street Institute and the Policy Lab are engaged in identifying congressional reforms that will increase Congress’s institutional capacities and performance. Earmark reform may present an opportunity to give congressional leaders a tool for building bipartisan cooperation on key legislation.
Policy Lab is working with R Street on a year-long analysis of earmarks, creating a policy report that will outline their history and fiscal impacts, effects on leadership’s legislative priorities, and present policy alternatives based on the findings.
Since the beginning of the U.S. Congress, leaders have found it expedient to offer directed spending or tax benefits to members’ states or districts in exchange for consideration on votes on the leadership’s priorities. This directed spending was known as an “earmark,” after the folded corner of a page that signaled these special additions to spending bills. These deals were never popular with the public at large, and were often maligned as unfair and wasteful “pork barrel” spending by critics. However, they allowed congressional leaders a useful tool for building majorities for their legislative priorities, while offering members the ability to take home additional federal resources.
After a series of widely publicized controversies related to earmarks in 2005, Congress began to consider reforms. In 2007, the House and Senate instituted rules that required members to submit forms requesting earmarks in writing. In 2010, earmark spending accounted for less than 1% of the federal budget. But in 2011, the Republicans in the House and Senate instituted an earmark moratorium, which banned all such directed spending. In his State of the Union address that year, President Obama promised to veto any spending bill that contained an earmark. Despite these repeated attempts to ban the practice, the rise of “letter-marking” may have just shifted control to bureaucratic agencies.
In the polarized, hyper-partisan environment of today’s Capitol Hill, many long-serving lawmakers are considering ways to bring back earmarks. The hope is that earmarks could increase cooperation and aid in strengthening Congress as an institution. The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee held hearings in 2018 examining reinstating the system, and President Trump has spoken favorably about it idea. Democrats like Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have also indicated their support for a reformed earmark system. However, detractors still exist: In a closed-door caucus meeting this May, Senate Republicans voted to “permanently” ban earmarks. R Street and the Policy Lab are engaged in providing evidenced-based research to consider alternatives for lifting the earmark moratorium and implementing a reformed system.