By: Quardricos Bernard Driskell
When I am in an Uber, and drivers politely inquire about my profession, I tell them I am a lobbyist and, of course, that accompanies various sorts of perceptions. I am direct with them, for I use it as an opportunity to dispel any myths or negative connotations they (and others outside of Washington) might have about lobbying. Lobbying is a unique profession with every American’s interest represented. If you own a car, ride a bike, played on a sports team, used a library, own a gun, Arab American or atheist; if you have done or are any of these in this country, you have been and are represented by a lobbyist. The few people who actively write, call or tweet their policymakers have acted as a lobbyist. Lobbying involves advocacy, and it is a process that makes democracy better by ensuring Americans’ voices are heard. And it is for this reason that I am encouraged about the possibility of earmarks returning to Congress.
Discussions about bringing back earmarks have germinated on Capitol Hill in recent years. But now House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3.) announced last week her committee’s plan to solicit members’ requests for earmarks, the system of designating funds for specific local projects that’s been banned for a decade.
Earmarks – funding for specific projects usually inserted into comprehensive spending bills. However, earmarks were eliminated in 2011 by Republicans who won the House with the Tea Party movement, who insisted that the federal government tighten its spending. Infamously, the “bridge to nowhere” became the rallying symbol of why earmarks are wasteful and need to stop. While the Tea Party had more role in setting the stage; however, in further investigation, I discovered that they succeeded in getting only an intraparty agreement not to embed earmarks in appropriations, though it seems all Republicans did not universally accept it. But Pres. Obama had a significant hand in bringing on a de facto ban by declaring that he would veto any appropriations bill containing earmarks – essentially attempting to look as fiscally responsible and anti-pork as the Tea Party. It came only after his declaration that Congress did enact a ‘temporary’ ban. Thus there is bipartisan ‘credit’ (blame) for the disappearance of the earmark. It’s both the ‘Fiscal Prudes’ and the ‘Reform Do-Gooders’ that need to share the blame. But the reality is with earmarks, everybody wins.
Democrats have posited that direct appropriations to specific projects in their home districts would build bipartisan support among Congress. Earmarks are certainly a benefit for government affairs professionals, members of Congress, and the people. It puts the power of the purse strings back in the hands of Congress as it should be. Lastly, it provides needed funding for district projects that make communities better. Restoring earmarks will allow Congress to reclaim the spending authority it has given away to the presidency. Additionally, earmarks could help with the absence of legislative activity that has plagued Congress as of late.
Most legislative bills never pass Congress – many are left as ideas or die in the drafting stage; they often need a majority of congressional support, which is nearly impossible given the highly partisan divide.
Moreover, in today’s filibuster-prone world, you still need three-fifths of the Senate to pass anything. And even if a bill manages to pass this process, it could die in conference committee – when the Senate and House convene to iron out their differences. This legislative process is rare. Democrat’s rebranding earmarks as “Community Project Funding” details a plan that will exclude for-profit companies, and the money available will only be a small slice of appropriations. The reality is earmarks represented nearly one percent of the total U.S. budget. Congress was created to be the responsive branch of government, and earmarks help with government actions, ideally creating political equality. By this, I mean the policy areas of national defense, education, foreign aid, parks, and recreation, improving and protecting the nation’s health, especially amid COVID-19, preserving the environment, and refining our infrastructure to improve the country. While these areas do not cover all issues or concerns in our country or even all major government spending areas, they address many of the most critical government spending decisions government makes. And earmarks provide an equal opportunity window into the policy responsiveness in American democracy.
When polarization and the political divide are high, reviving earmarks would benefit both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans would score consistent ideological favor with their base, while Democrats would benefit from specific project grants and direct payments while excluding the corporations' wealthiest. Legislators who effectively bring home the “pork” would also expose which Congress members are serious about legislating rather than being stuck at Twitter and media-clout personality seekers.
Most would agree that the institution of Congress is broken. Earmarks can help fix it. They provide full transparency and accountability for all projects, spending, and legislation. They allow, even demand, that Congress operates not just on the level of grand national policy and philosophy of government, where stasis seems to rule, but also the pragmatically impactful local level of specific constituent needs. The opportunity – necessity - for doing both can often open the pathway to breaking logjams and surmounting filibuster efforts. By federal standards, this process improves Congress, helps districts, and brings further dignity to the profession of government relations. The lobbying profession helps, as there is nothing more specific and impactful than aiding, educating Congress members and their staff about how federal spending can improve their districts – this goes a long way than only naming a post office after a community hero. The support of earmarks is not about greasing the wheels and give-a-ways of baubles and bibelots or having whiskey lunches, but this is about restoring trust and getting to the people’s business of legislating. A Congress accountable to the spending of federal money going to one program, policy area, or another in exchange for a vote is better than a Congress being beholden to outside special interest money.
Quardricos Bernard Driskell is a federal lobbyist, an adjunct professor of legislative politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4