According to Roll Call, during a Democrat strategy session last week Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) broached the idea of suspending earmarks during the 2010 appropriations process. And even though the reasons cited were mostly political – this fiscal restraint would come as welcome relief to the average everyday American.

Earmarks have long been considered an emblem of Washington, DC corruption, waste and abuse. Earmark supporters will make such arguments as “the total amount of spending on earmarks is minimal,” or “why should we let bureaucrats spend federal dollars, when we know where the money should go.” But these desperate arguments miss the point. Earmarks are not only a classic sign of favoritism but they grease the wheels for ever higher levels of government spending.

Additionally, there are so many earmarks now (in 2009 there were estimated to be 11,914 for a total of over $20 billion) that abuse is bound to happen. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

In 2007 a similar effort was undertaken by a Republican majority. In that case the Republican majority refused to fund over 10,000 earmarks that were left over in FY 2007 appropriations bills from the previous year. This ended up being a one shot deal though as the FY 2008 earmark process continued with earmarks unabated. But this is a good idea whose time may have come again. This moratorium should also have backing from the Administration as President Obama has also been an advocate for reducing earmarks. Specifically, the President proposed that:

  • The annual cost of earmarks should be no greater than $7.8 billion, the level they were at in 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress; and
  • Any earmark for a for-profit company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts.

To a disgruntled, disillusioned, dispirited American populace a truly effective earmark moratorium would come as welcome relief. But it has to be legitimate and not just window dressing and more of the same. Some ideas to give it teeth include:

  • A Practical Working Definition. As my colleague Ron Utt notes earmarks are a bit like pornography – you know it when you see it but it is hard to find a good definition. Earmarks are so widely used and abused that it is hard to get a firm plan for reduction when they can so easily be moved or re-named.
  • Active Administration Support. In 2007 Members quickly found a way around the ban by calling and intimidating federal agency personnel into honoring the earmarks. To truly uphold any ban effectively President Obama needs to take a page from his predecessor. When President Bush found out that Members were circumventing the ban through federal agency intimidation he had his OMB Director Rob Portman issue a memorandum to heads of departments and agencies directing them not to honor such informal requests.
  • They Should Be Joined by the Senate. A one-sided earmark moratorium will not achieve the goals of reducing any earmarks as House Members would just submit their requests to the Senators giving them more earmark credit to take. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has already called for the Senate to also take up the moratorium which would give a lot more credibility and effectiveness to this effort.

Earmark reform efforts have always been a tough sell in Congress. Members from both sides of the aisle like to be able to bring home dollars for the State or District. But the fundamental unfairness of earmarks has long stuck in the craw of the American people. Media reports indicate that Speaker Pelosi is considering a one year moratorium on earmarking. This would be a great first step and may be the beginning of bipartisan agreement on an issue that may restrain federal spending.