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Congress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks

After a record $3.1 trillion deficit in fiscal year (FY) 2020 and a $1.7 trillion deficit in the first six months of FY 2021, members of Congress have decided to throw away any remaining semblance of fiscal responsibility by agreeing to restore earmarks.

One of the longstanding arguments in favor of earmarks is that they provide an incentive for bipartisan agreements to spend the taxpayers’ money. That is laughable after the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan increased the total spent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to more than $5.7 trillion and President Biden proposed a $2.25 trillion “infrastructure” plan plus a $3.9 trillion budget outline for fiscal year 2022. This would seem to be a good time to pause and consider how to spend the taxpayers’ money effectively and efficiently.

Instead, House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) agreed in March to restore earmarks for fiscal year 2022. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) led the effort to convince the House Republican Conference to go along with this plan, while Senate Republicans, who became the first group of members of Congress to agree to a permanent ban on earmarks on May 23, 2019, have yet to undo their policy. The members of Congress who agreed to restore earmarks are willfully ignoring or have forgotten why this corrupt, inequitable, and costly practice was first subject to the moratorium.

The DeLauro-Leahy plan renames earmarks as “Community Project Funding,” a designation that has no meaning, since it applies to nearly every penny spent by the federal government. The new earmarks will be similar to the old earmarks that were included in the appropriations bills passed by Congress during fiscal years 2008-2010, which required that the names of the members who received earmarks be listed in each bill. During that period of time, the 81 members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which equals 15 percent of Congress, purloined 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money. Nothing in the new earmark plan eliminates the same opportunity for abuse that would inequitably benefit members of the Appropriations Committees and congressional leadership.

The 2021 Congressional Pig Book exposes 285 earmarks, an increase of 4 percent from the 274 in fiscal year (FY) 2020, at a cost of $16.8 billion, an increase of 5.7 percent from the $15.9 billion in earmarks in FY 2020. The cost of the FY 2021 earmarks is 1.8 percent higher than the $16.5 billion in FY 2010, the last year prior to the moratorium. Since FY 1991, CAGW has identified 111,702 earmarks costing $392.5 billion.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has received the most earmarks at the highest cost in each year since FY 1994, and that trend continued in FY 2021, with the total of $8.3 billion representing 49.4 percent of the total of $16.8 billion.

The 2021 Congressional Pig Book includes a slew of nutty nature-related earmarks.

Congress earmarked $65 million for the fourth year in a row to help recover Pacific Coastal Salmon, a record $25 million to control aquatic plants, $16 million for aquatic nuisance control research, a record $11.4 million to purchase fish screens, and $663,000 to eradicate brown tree snakes in Guam.

Perhaps the most flagrant earmark is the $19.7 million for the East-West Center, an 18 percent increase from the $16.7 earmarked in FYs 2018 through 2020, and the largest earmark ever for the center, added by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). His earmark represents 68.2 percent of the center’s budget, keeping it alive even though its counterpart, the North-South Center, stopped receiving federal funding in 2001. The East-West Center should also be able to stand on its own without taxpayer support.

Taxpayers, and more importantly members of Congress, must always remember why the 2011 earmark moratorium was necessary in the first place.

After high-profile boondoggles like the Bridge to Nowhere and a decade of scandals in the early 2000s that resulted in jail terms for congressmen and lobbyists, Washington could no longer abide keeping the practice in place.

The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that the problem with all of the arguments by earmark proponents is “the more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.” The late Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called earmarks “the gateway drug to Washington’s spending addiction.”

Congress is letting taxpayers down by reinstating the most corrupt, costly, and inequitable practice in the history of the federal government.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tags Brian Schatz budget debt earmarks fiscal responsibility infrastructure plan Joe Biden John McCain Mike Rogers Patrick Leahy Rosa DeLauro Tom Coburn

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