When Berkeley County closed its library in Jamestown years ago, the South Carolina town took over operations, moving them to a room in a building near the town hall, and asked Congress to step in with $50,000 in cash.
Rep. James Clyburn, a senior Democrat who represents the area, doubled the ask to $100,000, courtesy of taxpayers and an “earmark,” a special request for funding he tucked into a 2009 spending bill. But in addition to doubling the town’s request, the bill also listed the money going 2,700 miles away, in Jamestown, California — a town that didn’t even have a library.
Staffers insisted the goof could be easily fixed, but it never was.
“Somebody spent it, but it wasn’t us,” Chris Pipkin, the town clerk, told The Washington Times this week. “I have no idea what happened.”
Ms. Pipkin’s story serves as a cautionary tale as Capitol Hill revives the practice of earmarks, which had been dormant for the last decade thanks to GOP control of at least one chamber of Congress.
Democrats, now in control of both chambers, have insisted they’ve learned the lessons of the past and can do it right this time around.
The House GOP has already voted to join in, while Senate Republicans are poised to vote Wednesday on what their own approach will be, though key senators say that as long as Democrats are allowing earmarks, those Republicans who want to ask for them will be able to.
“If people ask for an earmark, they’ve got a right to do that,” Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill last week.
The public, however, isn’t as eager. A Morning Consult/Politico poll last month showed just 19% supported the return of earmarks.
Even among Democrats, who were the most open, only 27% supported the idea, compared to 31% who were opposed. The rest didn’t give an opinion. Among Republicans support was just 15%, while opposition was 56%.
Michael McKenna, a pollster and former top legislative aide in the Trump White House, said it’s not that voters care about the actual earmarks, but they can sniff corruption in the process.
“There is always going to be, in any year, anywhere from three to 15 members who ask for money that they shouldn’t ask for, for things which shouldn’t be done, or for things that involve their donors,” he said. “It deteriorates the already shaky view people already have of Congress.”
When earmarking goes wrong
Republicans, under then-Leader John A. Boehner, forced an end to earmarks in 2011, after embarrassments like the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, a project that would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to link a low-population island to the Alaskan mainland, although many thought the ferry service was sufficient.
An even bigger red flag, though, was former Rep. Duke Cunningham, a California Republican who served prison time for selling earmarks.
Prosecutors during sentencing even presented what they called his “bribe menu,” the list of prices he demanded to be paid in exchange for delivering taxpayer money. A $16 million project cost $140,000 plus a luxury party yacht, and each additional million dollars in earmarking cost another $50,000 in cash.
Former Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, also landed in prison after directing millions of dollars in earmarked taxpayer money to a charity that employed ex-staffers and friends.
Earmark-backers in both parties insist they are intent on blocking repeat-performances, and point to reforms Democrats made from 2007 to 2010, when they last held the reins in both chambers of Congress.
Yet the Jamestown library fiasco happened on their watch.
Mr. Clyburn’s office didn’t respond Monday to a message seeking comment.
There is no library in Jamestown, California, and Deborah Bautista, the auditor for surrounding Tuolumne County, looked through their records from 2009 through 2011 and said the money never reached them.
“No, we did not receive the money,” she said.
Mrs. Pipkin, the town clerk in South Carolina, said after learning that the money had been approved but earmarked for the opposite coast, said she tried to figure out what needed to be done.
“I got in touch with Clyburn’s office and asked ‘OK, what’s the process, now what do I have to do?’” she said. “They kept saying ‘Oh we’ll take care of it, we’ll take care of it.’ Never did anything.”
The money was to be used for computers and shelving.
Mrs. Pipkin said the library has been mostly sitting dormant over the last year, and the computer has gone down. She said the internet connection is still live — it’s not an extra expense — but she’ll probably cancel that soon, too.
“We haven’t closed the library but it’s going that way, because we just don’t have the funds to maintain it,” she said.
When earmarking goes right
Earmark supporters say they can be life-savers — literally.
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and at one time the most senior lawmaker on the Appropriations Committee, poured millions of dollars into Chitosan dressings to patch up serious wounds on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He said “countless” troops were saved by the combat dressing.
Mr. Inouye, in a floor speech amid a previous earmark fight, also said what became the Human Genome Project relied on an earmark tucked into a bill that funded the National Institutes of Health in fiscal 1988. And he traced the existence of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., back to earmarks in 1969 and 1970.
Another earmark most Washingtonians are familiar with is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which spans the Potomac River along the Capital Beltway, completing the major north-south route along the East Coast. It took a $900 million earmark in a late-1990s highway bill force construction of a modern replacement.
Defenders say earmarks don’t increase the cost of bills, but rather divide up existing funding as members of Congress want. Those lawmakers say they best know the needs of their communities, or their areas of expertise, such as the Defense Department.
That was the case for the Predator drone, which a number of former senior lawmakers said would not have been flying over Afghanistan and Iraq earlier this century if not for congressional earmarks.
Then-Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, told The Times in 2006 that his initial $40 million earmark helped put the program on firm footing, and the Pentagon soon realized its worth and fully backed the program.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, in its guidance for Congress, lists earmarks that helped create the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force, and built the Deep Creek dam in North Carolina that’s helped with flood control and the region’s water supply.
An earmark also helped create the New Jersey National Guard’s program to help soldiers returning from the battlefield transition to civilian life and to fund cutting-edge heart treatment at a children’s hospital in St. Louis, the BPC said.
Merit or politics
Earmarks never amounted to much money. At their height, they were about 1% of total government spending, and lawmakers have vowed to limit them to even lower amounts this time around.
Earmark leaders like Mr. Shelby also insist they can avoid the goof-ups, and vow to have the Appropriations Committees do the kinds of scrutiny that doesn’t appear to have happened with Mr. Clyburn’s library earmark.
“It would have to be meritorious and substantive,” Mr. Shelby said.
Other lawmakers say that’s just not possible.
“Earmarks send federal money to projects not based upon merit, but politics,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican.
Mr. McKenna, the former Trump legislative aide who now pens a column for The Times, said he expects a majority of Republican lawmakers will forgo the practice.
“I think there’s going to be a pretty heavy bias against doing it,” he said. “The Republicans who do request and accept are going to be treated like lepers by some of their colleagues.”