In November the American people voted to give Republicans unified control of the federal government because, in large part, we pledged to “drain the swamp”—that corrupt political culture prevailing in our nation’s capital that enables elites to manipulate the levers of government to their advantage.
Changing business as usual in Washington is a tough fight. But we would be going the wrong way if Republicans were to lift the current ban on earmarks—those infamous provisos attached to spending bills that funnel taxpayer money to pet projects and parochial interests—as some have proposed.
The most that can be said of the proposal to revive earmarks—a practice Republicans voted to prohibit in 2010—is that it begins from a correct observation that political dysfunction is plaguing Washington today.
Article I of the Constitution vests “all legislative powers” in Congress. But in recent decades, legislators have been giving away many of their lawmaking powers to the executive branch.
So today, just as the vast majority of the federal government’s rules are written by unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch, these same bureaucrats often enjoy more discretion than members of Congress in deciding how federal taxpayer money is spent.
Republicans are rightfully frustrated by this state of affairs, which has led some of our colleagues in the House to float the idea of bringing back earmarks.
As they tell it, reviving earmarks would strengthen Congress by reclaiming the legislature’s most potent authority: the power of the purse.
Congress needs to assert its power of the purse, but not in this manner.
Letting members of Congress take credit for federal money steered to their constituents does not fix the incentive problem at the core of today’s congressional dysfunction. In fact, it would only worsen it.
As anyone who worked in Washington before 2010 will remember, earmarking was not the innocuous exercise of Congress’ constitutional spending power. It was the tool lobbyists and leadership used to compel members to vote for bills that their constituents—and sometimes their conscience—opposed.
The good news is that there’s a better way to strengthen Congress. Instead of reviving earmarks, which would ultimately only further weaken the legislative branch, there are other ways to reinvigorate Congress’ power of the purse without also reinvigorating special interests in Washington.
For example, Congress can use the authorization process to reform how federal agencies spend taxpayer dollars to ensure the process for selecting funding priorities and recipients is transparent, merit-based, and consistent with congressional intent.
We can also rewrite our outdated budget process rules in a way that puts Congress back into the driver’s seat instead of the current role of junior partner to the executive branch.
As the co-leaders of the Article I Project, a network of House and Senate conservatives committed to putting Congress—and, by extension, the American people—back in control of Washington, our mission is to make Congress once again responsible, both in discharging its constitutional duties and making itself accountable for the consequences.
Unfortunately, bringing back earmarks would not do this. It would make our job harder, make Congress weaker, and make federal power more centralized, less accountable, and more corrupt.
That’s why we’ll be working to keep the ban in place, and we invite conservatives to join us.