Earmarks Are Still a Bad Idea | Opinion

Bad ideas in Washington, D.C. never really die. They just go on hiatus for a while and sometimes get a name change or a refreshed image. Earmarks are the latest bad idea Congress is attempting to bring back into circulation.

Earmarks are single-line-item spending for pet projects that were wisely banned in 2010 after a series of high-profile corruption stories. Who can forget the famous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska? The proposed bridge would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska to Gravina Island, and would have cost an estimated total of $398 million. The project was popular among the Alaskan congressional delegation, but was correctly understood by the American people as a waste of taxpayer funding.

The American public has always understood what Congress has failed to grasp—that earmarks go hand-in-hand with corruption. Earmarks allowed members of Congress to direct vast sums of federal taxpayer dollars to special-interest projects or quirky and unnecessary ventures in their home districts.

One such quirky project was the Teapot Museum in North Carolina, which was slated to receive a $500,000 earmark in 2005, courtesy of taxpayer funding secured by two members of the North Carolina congressional delegation. As a special thanks to those two members for directing that funding, the museum's lobbyists turned around and made several thousand dollars of campaign contributions to each of them. The project was canceled before the funds ever left the federal government, but the lesson from this experience remains powerful.

In defending the earmark for the museum, a North Carolina congresswoman explained it in Washington-speak: "The money's gonna be spent, and it's up to us to again be advocates for our areas to try to help with those areas."

U.S. Capitol in March 2021
U.S. Capitol in March 2021 OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

An annual round-up of the list of earmarks became a running joke in Washington, D.C. In 2009, the year before the earmark ban, Congress saw fit to dole out money for 10,160 earmarks, including $1,791,000 for swine odor and manure management research, $4,545,000 for wood utilization research and $6,422,625 total for six projects for the clients of a lobbying firm that was placed under federal investigation for making campaign donations in exchange for political favors. It's difficult to argue that these earmarks were great investments of taxpayer funds.

After multiple controversies (and criminal investigations), Congress finally did away with earmarks in 2010.

Now, today, Democrats are trying to revive the practice—and some Republicans on Capitol Hill seem willing to go along. This time around, however, politicians are attempting to give a new image to the unpopular term "earmarks." We hear now that these projects will often be referred to as "member-directed funding for community projects." Apparently that phrase polled better than "taxpayer-funded pet projects to help members of Congress gain political favor."

As we face the prospect of bringing back earmarks, I encourage my Republican colleagues to help draw a stark contrast between our party and the Democrats. We are less than 20 months away from next fall's midterm elections, and all eyes are on Capitol Hill to see if Democrats deserve to have unilateral, one-party control of Washington. The answer is a decisive "no." We can help make that case clear by showcasing our commitment to fiscal responsibility, in contrast to the Democrats' desire to revive a corrupt practice of doling out tax dollars to fund pig manure research, among other equally worthy projects.

Pork-barrel spending advocates are eager to jettison the label "earmarks," but taxpayers see through the spin. Just as Juliet told Romeo, "that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," so too do taxpayers understand that a pork manure research earmark, by any other name, stinks just as much.

Ken Buck, a Republican, is a member of Congress from Colorado.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.