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WASHINGTON - Detractors call them “pork,” invoking the cliche of a local congressman bringing home the bacon. Advocates call them “community project funding.”
Whatever the appellation, the debate over whether Congress can ethically bring back earmarks — a maligned spending practice banished a decade ago — is fueling debate among Texans in Congress. For some members, earmarks bring to mind an ugly past that landed one of their own in prison. Others see reviving the practice as one way to return to a functional, maybe even bipartisan, political system.
There's no legal definition of earmarks. You know them when you see them. A lawmaker wants a bridge or post office or some other project built in their district. They write a small proposal committing federal funds for the job and try to to inject it into one of Congress' massive spending bills each year. They shop the idea around to colleagues, and with the right cajoling and horse trading, their small request is granted and that new post office is on the way, perhaps even to be named after the lawmaker who wriggled it through.
Given the abundant opportunities for sleaze and profligacy earmarks came to represent, Republicans eliminated the practice in 2011, and Democrats reluctantly abided by the decision.
Now that Democrats have full control of the government, they, along with some Republicans, want earmarks back. They promise this time around they'll come up with a process that eliminates malfeasance.
“Do you want your member of Congress to help you or do you want the decision to be done by some bureaucrat that you’ve never met before?” asked U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat.
Before their demise, earmarks shepherded by Texas legislators supported cybersecurity education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the dredging of the Port of Houston, wind energy studies at Texas Tech University, desalination in El Paso and cancer research at MD Anderson Cancer Center, among other things.
But for all the arguable good accomplished, the mechanism has a salacious past.
Members would quietly slip in requests for spending provisions in exchange for campaign contributions, popularity back home, and sometimes even bribes. In return, leadership could horse trade earmarks for votes on major bills. And while earmark abuse symbolized out-of-control government spending, they amounted to less than 1% of federal spending.
Back in 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress was mired in scandal. On the House side, prosecutors charged a war hero who claimed to have inspired the fictional movie “Top Gun” — U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham — with taking bribes in exchange for earmarks, including $2 million, prostitutes and even a French commode. On the Senate side, another Republican — U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens — became famous for ramming through
$223 million to build a bridge to an Alaskan island populated by 50 people. The project, known as the “Bridge to Nowhere," was never built.
At their peak, earmarks were so pervasive that entire lobbying firms existed to nurture them. And a member’s seniority — not the merit of the region’s need — meant that Congress diverted piles of money to sparsely populated regions like Alaska and West Virginia compared to denser regions.
Those scandals in part cost the GOP control of both chambers in the 2006 midterm election, and Democratic leaders put controls on earmarks to avoid their own troubles.
But once Republicans took the House in 2011, they did away with earmarks altogether, and Senate Democrats reluctantly followed suit. The earmark ban was not written into the rules of Congress. Instead, Congressional and committee leaders enforced the moratorium over the years.
Earmarks now seem all but certain to return, because Democrats want them and Democrats have control of the Capitol. That leaves individual members to decide if they will take part in the practice.
Many Democrats are expected to embrace earmarks, although outliers could emerge. The Republican side is much more complicated. Two weeks ago, House GOP members in a secret vote approved the return of earmarks. The Senate GOP has not.
Within the Texas GOP delegation, views on earmarks do not appear to be falling along ideological lines. Some Republicans blame them for the ballooning deficit in the 2000s, but other fiercely conservative Texans view the practice as protective of the legislative branch.
There is also the issue of practical politics — embattled incumbents might want credit for projects, more senior members might want to return to the practice and committee assignments could determine support.
For no Texas Republican is the question more consequential than U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Fort Worth Republican. She's the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and if Republicans take power next term, could become chairwoman. While she has declined to comment, Politico previously reported that she voiced her support for a return of earmarks.
According to interviews within the delegation, a number of Republicans are still sorting out where they'll land.
But not all Republicans. This month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz spearheaded a letter opposing the return of earmarks to Congressional leadership in both chambers that three other Texas Republicans signed onto: U.S. Reps. Lance Gooden of Terrell, Ronny Jackson of Amarillo and Chip Roy of Austin.
“Earmarks were used to buy and sell votes and reward favors,” the members wrote. “Earmarks brought discredit on the House and Senate and ultimately led to several members of Congress being convicted on corruption charges.”
Opponents like Roy urged members to join in a voluntary boycott of the practice. On the day of the vote, he wrote a letter to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing he and 17 other members would not make any earmark requests.
But many in Congress blame the earmark ban for increased political dysfunction and a diminishment of the legislative branch’s power.
And for some legislators, the return of earmarks is about the principle of zealously guarding the leverage of Congress, the power of the purse. When there are no earmarks, executive branch staffers determine how federal funds are divided up.
“It’s good policy because I’d rather have a member of Congress who’s closer to a community make a decision as to where money goes instead of having some bureaucrat who’s never been to McMullen County or LaSalle County or Webb County,” said Cuellar, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
Cuellar, who came to Congress at the end of that excessive era, said the ban put his rural counties at a disadvantage: Without a member of Congress advocating for spending in specific districts, the onus fell to grant writers — a luxury staffer many communities cannot afford.
On the House side, leaders try to spread out appropriators based on regions, so one member serves as the point person for all members, regardless of party. The simple act of making requests and horse trading, some former Texas delegations staffers interviewed for this story argued, also fosters bipartisan cooperation.
Still other members are anxious to return to earmarks because it helps them whip votes, or as Cuellar puts it, “You have certain projects that are of interest to members that will help get the member’s attention to hopefully support that legislation.” For instance, a member would be less likely to support a government shutdown if the spending bill included funds earmarked for a new school in the member’s district.
As for incumbents, it allows individual members to take credit for their advocacy of a specific project and appear at a ribbon cutting ceremony — a boost for reelection.
“I don’t know what the Republicans are going to do on this one, but I know members of Appropriations, Republicans, I have not talked to one single one who said ‘I’m not going to support it,’” Cuellar said.
Cuellar predicted Republican holdouts will come around eventually.
“They might complain at the beginning, like they complained about proxy voting,” he added. “I now see a whole bunch of Republicans who used to complain and are now doing proxy voting, including some of my colleagues from Texas.”
Disclosure: MD Anderson Cancer Center, Politico, Texas Tech University and University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.