It’s next to impossible to fix a problem until you can explain what it is. That may be why lawmakers have such difficulty dealing with budgetary “earmarks.”
In at least one way, earmarks are like pornography: There’s no universally accepted definition. Potter Stewart, a Supreme Court justice, famously said of pornography in 1964, “I know it when I see it.”
Well, most Americans know earmarks when they see them. And the outcry last fall over the outlandish “bridge to nowhere” earmark shows most Americans oppose them in principle. But if we are to eliminate earmarks in practice, lawmakers first must agree on what an earmark is.
At least 51 pieces of legislation are working their way through Congress, all aimed at reforming “lobbying” and “earmarking.” One recently passed offers a detailed definition of an earmark: a provision covering “budget authority, contract authority, loan authority, and other expenditures, and tax expenditures or other revenue items.”
That’s a good start, but it misses a key function of earmarks: Individual lawmakers use them to mandate spending on particular projects, often to the benefit of influential and supportive constituents.
Consider a senator angling to get the federal government to spend more on highways in his state. Inserting a provision to increase overall highway funding or change the funding formula to benefit his state would not constitute earmarking. But if he inserts language stipulating that $220 million will be spent on a specific bridge, that would meet a reasonable definition of an earmark.
That kind of earmarking goes on all the time. As a matter of fact, it went on 6,371 times in last year’s federal highway bill, alone — often to support pet projects that state officials didn’t even want.
It’s probably impossible to eliminate earmarks completely. As long as lawmakers believe they can gain political support by “bringing home the bacon,” they’ll be tempted to do so. But we can at least improve the integrity of the legislative process and make earmarking more honest. The key is to make the whole appropriations process more “transparent,” so taxpayers can see what’s going on.
As a start, lobbying reform should force lawmakers to disclose any family relationships with lobbyists. This is a growing problem.
In 2003, a lengthy investigative report in the Los Angeles Times revealed an extensive network of lawmakers’ sons who were registered lobbyists and served clients whose business and financial interests involved issues that came before their parents’ congressional committees. And just this year a senator acknowledged that clients of a lobbyist married to a member of his staff had received 13 earmarks totaling $48.7 million.
Common-sense reform should require full disclosure by lobbyists of any blood, marital or other formal relationships between them and members of Congress, senior congressional staff and executive branch officials.
It’s also critical to know where the money is coming from. Lobbyists should be required to immediately disclose any campaign contributions from a client or his staff. They should also reveal any contributions to charities and other organizations near and dear to a lawmaker’s heart.
In addition, an effective law should mandate immediate disclosure of which fund-raisers have been hosted, co-hosted or otherwise sponsored by lobbying firms, lobbyists and their political action committees. Disclosure of contributions for other events involving legislative and executive branch officials also would help.
Senators should be able to oppose an earmark by raising a point of order, which requires 60 votes to overrule. If the point of order is sustained, the earmark would be dropped from the bill or its report. This would allow lawmakers to edit out wasteful earmarks without affecting the few cases (such as Defense appropriations) where earmarks might be helpful.
It’s important that voters be able to see everything lawmakers do. After all, Congress is acting in the name of the people, spending our money and passing laws that affect us all. We deserve to know as much as possible about how those laws came to be.
Any law aimed at limiting lobbying and earmarks must require extensive reporting and transparency and make the links between earmarks and campaign contributions more obvious. Those are the best ways to enhance the integrity of lawmaking.
No matter how they’re defined, earmarks are probably here to stay in one form or another. Even slowing their growth will prove a serious challenge. But we should at least try to make the process more honest. Under the Capitol dome, as in other sanitaria, sunshine will have a healing effect.
Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).