Congress is poised to restore the use of earmarks, enabling what many consider to be a source of open corruption and abuse of power. Earmarks, which involve benefits for specific lawmakers being included in legislation, have been banned for a decade. Both parties have been divided internally over the ban, which was led by Republicans and supported by President Obama.
Rare bipartisan approval
The current attempt to return to the use of earmarks is led by the Democrats but has received widespread support among Republicans in the House.
Congressional Democrats now hope to return to the use of earmarks to aid the passage of the Biden infrastructure bill, which would benefit greatly from the additional freedom in allocating funds.
While Republicans in the House have approved the return of earmarks, several Republican senators have made it clear that they will strongly oppose any attempt to resurrect the controversial spending tool.
Senator Mitt Romney, announcing his opposition, described the potential return of earmarks as representing “a turn to the worst” in legislative excesses and abuses.
Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Steve Daines, of Florida and Montana respectively, introduced a bill in March which would permanently ban earmarks as a source of corruption and waste.
Other Republicans in Congress feel that backing the return of earmarks would give them a greater degree of influence over the direction of the Biden infrastructure bill.
Earmarks do nothing but add to the toxic, swampy culture that DC's known for. These back-room deals promote pay-for-play behavior that make lobbyists rich on the taxpayer’s dime.
Glad to introduce a bill with my colleagues to get rid of this corrupt practice once and for all.
— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) March 2, 2021
Earmarks have long been derided as a gateway to corruption in legislation, with President Obama declaring that the ban would prevent the abuse of American tax dollars by special interests.
Multiple forms of bribery have been attributed to the use of earmarks, including instances of lawmakers being directly bribed by special interests in exchange for securing certain earmarks.
In a less direct sense, however, there are accusations that earmarks themselves are fundamentally a sort of bribery which this reversal on the ban would legalize.
The concern is that lawmakers could be enticed to support unpopular or unethical legislation in the eyes of their constituents in exchange for shortsighted spending benefits.
Opponents of the ban argue that the sorts of abuses which have been attributed to earmarks have not seen much of a decline subsequent to the ban, with lawmakers simply adopting other methods for the same purposes.
While earmarks may make the legislative process operate more smoothly for both parties in Congress, they are unlikely to be any more popular with the general public, which generally already holds a view of Congress as a hopelessly corrupt institution.