There is a 14-mile gap in Interstate 49 outside Fort Smith, Ark., and Rep. Steve Womack, who represents the area, would very much like to secure the estimated $300 million in federal taxpayer money needed to fill it.
A decade ago, it would have been fairly easy: Womack sits on the House Appropriations Committee, where he could have tucked a provision into a major spending bill to lock in the money.
But “earmarks” are now verboten — and Womack is left only to fume about a slow-moving bureaucratic process over which he has little control.
“I don’t want to rely on the [Transportation Department] to say, ‘Yeah, we agree with you, and we ought to do this,’ ” he said, arguing that the agency favors more heavily populated areas over rural. “I’m the subject matter expert in my district. Give me the opportunity to determine where some of this money should go.”
The frustration from Republican lawmakers such as Womack, who want to exert power over federal spending on pet projects in their districts, is fueling a major push to restore earmarks seven years after they were abolished in the House after a series of scandals.
The effort got a significant boost last week from President Trump, who suggested during a televised White House meeting with lawmakers that earmarks could help restore comity to Washington.
“We have to put better controls because it got a little bit out of hand,” Trump said. “But maybe that brings people together, because our system right now, the way it’s set up, will never bring people together.”
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the subject this week, titled “Effective Oversight and the Power of the Purse” — a nod to the belief among many Republicans that the earmark ban imposed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2011 gave up some of Congress’s constitutional power to direct how taxpayer money is spent.
The sudden momentum puts fiscal and ethics hawks who support the moratorium on the defensive, accusing their colleagues of having short memories. The bribery scandal that sent former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) to federal prison and funding for a $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska helped set the stage for a Democratic takeover of the House in 2006.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who began a lonely campaign against earmarking as a fiscally conservative House member, called the possibility of reviving earmarks “crazy talk.”
“We got beaten by a borrowed mule in the 2006 elections largely because of the corruption that came with earmarks,” he said. “That was awful. We don’t want to go back to that.”
But in the days after Trump’s pro-earmark comments, lawmakers in both parties rattled off projects they thought had been neglected by executive-branch agencies left to judge projects by their own criteria, which can be hard for nonprofit groups and local governments to decipher.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a book on earmarks, said the current system is biased toward groups that can afford to hire consultants or professional grant writers.
“When you are in a crisis situation and need federal help, you can’t always write a flawless grant proposal and send it off to Washington,” he said in a phone interview. “You can’t always communicate properly with federal agencies. You can rely on members of Congress to help you with that process, or you can rely on members of Congress to just get you that money.”
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), who is pushing a proposal that would allow Congress to earmark money for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management, pointed to a pair of water projects he said have been neglected in his district: a beach restoration in an area where the Gulf of Mexico is starting to lap at homes, and repairs to the massive Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
“Every member of Congress that I have talked to wants the power to be able to direct their taxpayers’ dollars to projects back in their district,” Rooney said. “It’s a matter of whether or not we have the political will to be able to make the argument to our constituents back home that the ‘deep state’ and the ‘swamp’ are the bureaucrats that are unaccountable to the electorate.”
Under recent proposals, earmarks would be restored only for a limited number of federal agencies and doled out only to public entities with strict transparency requirements. Rooney and others say the safeguards would prevent the abuse seen a decade ago.
Flake, however, warned that although earmarks account for a small fraction of spending, they occupy much of the time appropriators spend writing spending bills: “We gave up oversight of just about everything just to focus on feathering our own nest. It’s not worth it, it really isn’t.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a C-SPAN interview last week that he was not inclined to restore earmarks, but he did not rule out the possibility.
“I do believe that there is a concern about having more legislative branch oversight on how the executive branch spends money,” he said. “But we’ve got to make sure that we don’t go back to pork-barrel spending.”
Despite the fears of a return to the bad old days, many lawmakers are urging a reassessment of the positive work under the previous earmarking regime.
Between 2008 and 2010, recipients of earmarks ran the gamut from private corporations to nonprofit groups, Native American tribes, universities and city governments, according to data from the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Second Avenue Subway in New York City, which opened last year, received more than $600 million. Initiatives to prevent gang violence were funded in Northern Virginia, Los Angeles and Dover, N.H. Dozens of police departments received money to improve their equipment and communications systems. Levees were repaired along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
In Northern Virginia, starting in 2003, earmarks backed by former congressman Frank R. Wolf (R) funded a joint local-federal task force meant to combat gang activity in five counties near Washington. It received millions of dollars, including $5,350,000 between 2008 and 2010, according to interviews and a review of federal spending records.
Jay Lanham, executive director of the task force, said the funding partly supported efforts to prevent gangs from growing. The task force created jobs programs, held soccer tournaments, and employed counselors to stop at-risk kids from joining the groups and to assist members who wanted to leave, he said.
Once earmarks were banned, it was up to the counties to pick up the cost of prevention efforts. Two of the five did not, and Lanham said the loss of funding came at a bad time, as gangs such as MS-13 were gaining power around the region.
“I’m in favor of the earmarks if that is the way we can get our money back,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m scratching and clawing right now for money to support us.”
Wolf’s earmarks also had a global reach: In 2006, he inserted a provision for $1 million to jump-start the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts who performed a high-profile independent review of the American presence in Iraq as a growing insurgency was claiming dozens of U.S. troops per month.
“If you see a problem that is literally life and death . . . what do you do?” Wolf said about his earmarks. “I mean, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t deal with these issues.”
John Jeanetta, president and chief executive of Heartland Family Service in Omaha, said earmarks were instrumental when the group was trying to create a residential substance-abuse treatment program for mothers and pregnant women. The funding helped continue the program long enough to demonstrate its worth to the state’s managed-care organization, he said.
“I know sometimes earmarks have a bad reputation, but for us they were incredibly helpful. We’ve been able to save a lot of lives,” Jeanetta said in a phone interview.
In Norwalk, Conn., a group that provides training and curriculums to discourage kids from abusing drugs received $1.9 million in three earmarks to expand its efforts between 2008 and 2010. The group, the Courage to Speak Foundation, now has national reach and is poised to take on the opioid epidemic, said founder Ginger Katz, who became an activist after her son died of a drug overdose in 1996.
“We’re not a ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ ” she said in a phone interview, adding that the earmark ban significantly slowed her efforts at growth. “I could have quadrupled the numbers of places we’ve been in if I had more staff. We could have done so much more.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.