The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

New House Bill to Permanently Ban Earmarks

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Combating the push to resurrect earmark pork-barrel federal spending, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), along with Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), and Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) announced earlier this week their bipartisan legislation that would permanently ban earmarks from the legislative process.

The Earmark Elimination Act—H.R. 5369—would prohibit the House from considering any legislation containing earmarks, and it would strip any earmarks found in a bill being considered by the House before it could proceed.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) adopted seven criteria to identify earmarks, and used them for the first time in our 1991 Congressional Pig Book.

To qualify as an earmark, a project must meet at least one of the following conditions, but most satisfy at least two:

· Requested by only one chamber of Congress;

· Not specifically authorized;

· Not competitively awarded;

· Not requested by the President;

· Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;

· Not the subject of congressional hearings; or

· Serves only a local or special interest.

Discrepancies exist among the House and Senate, and CAGW definitions of earmarks.

The Senate and House define an earmark (or “congressionally directed spending item,” as they label it) as a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process. 

A project is identified by CAGW as an earmark (many times referred to as “pork projects”) when there is a lapse in long-standing congressional procedures designed to review and consider the expenditure of taxpayer dollars based upon merit.

Pork barrel earmark projects are usually slipped into large spending bills without debate, competition, or input from the relevant federal agencies. The provisions are often not subject to a separate vote in the House or the Senate and frequently appear in legislation only hours before Congress votes on appropriations bills.

Furthermore, pork projects are not subject to performance standards or to the normal competitive process which occurs at the agency level. For most of the time that CAGW has been publishing its annual Pig Book, Members of Congress were not required to attach their names to the earmarks they were requesting. The exception occurred between FYs 2008 and 2010.

Since 1991, CAGW’s Congressional Pig Book has provided the authoritative list of earmarks in the federal budget. The 2017 Pig Book highlighted 163 earmarks costing taxpayers $6.8 billion. These totals are, correspondingly, 32.5 percent more than the 123 earmarks and 33.3 percent more than the $5.1 billion in earmarks in FY 2016. The $6.8 billion is a 106.1 percent increase over the $3.3 billion in FY 2012, which was the first fiscal year following the establishment of the earmark moratorium.

“Earmarks are not the solution for congressional dysfunction, and would only move us in the wrong direction,” Rep. Norman said in reference to the Earmark Elimination Act.

And he’s correct. I worked in a personal office in the House of Representatives before the earmark ban was put in place in 2011. We had a full-time staffer whose only job was to field the thousands of earmark requests that poured into the office every year. The hassle was a nightmare. And your average office got maybe one or two earmarks a year, because in Congress, as in nature, the big dogs always eat first.

In the 111th Congress, 81 House and Senate appropriators, or 15 percent of the Congress, got 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money. Those Members who did not sit on appropriating committees or otherwise have seniority did not share equally in the earmarks. For your average office, it was a tremendous amount of work for little to no payoff.

“Earmarks encourage the worst behavior because they tempt people in Congress to steal taxpayer money to benefit big contributors or grease their own re-election,” Rep. Cooper said when he introduced his bill. “Taxpayer money should only be spent on high-quality projects, not low-grade special interests. Allowing even a few earmarks is like planting kudzu; pretty soon they will take over everything.”

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