Congress Needs Earmarks, Even If They’re Overrated

Listen up.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is right to urge a revival of the vilified practice of earmarks. Earmarks are good for democracy. But they wouldn't really solve the problem of congressional gridlock as so many argue.

Earmarks gave Congress the ability to direct agencies to spend for specific projects out of annual appropriations bills. They didn't increase overall spending. Instead, they carved out something out of the overall appropriations to an agency instead of having to submit to the regular process that funds most government projects. Earmarks grew rapidly during the Republican Congresses after the 1994 elections, and remained common in the Democratic Congresses from 2007 through 2010.

In 2011, Republicans banned earmarks as "a symbol of a dysfunctional Congress" that wasted too much money on pet projects. But that was a mistake.

The case for earmarks is twofold. Earmarks may be a good idea simply because it's perfectly fine for Congress to make specific spending choices. It strengthens democracy when politicians, accountable to voters, decide how government money is spent. When bureaucrats make those decisions, it weakens democracy because there's little voters can do about it.


But the more popular argument for earmarks is about efficacy: Legislation will pass more easily, advocates say, if congressional leaders have more tools for winning over individual members of Congress. 


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