Restoring the Power of the Purse: Earmarks and Re-Empowering Legislators to Deliver Local Benefits

Congressional Reform By Kevin R. Kosar January 2, 2024

In recent years, various senators and representatives have discussed lifting Congress’ earmark moratorium. The practice of earmarking—or allowing legislators to direct federal benefits in the forms of spending, tax, or tariffs to their home districts and states—is as old as the republic. Congress officially, but not actually, swore off earmarks in 2011.

The moratorium was enacted in reaction to well-publicized incidents of scandal and abuse related to earmarking and at a moment of fiscal crisis that focused national attention on deficit spending and debt. The purpose was an attempt to end a practice that was popularly understood to occasion corruption and wasteful spending.

However well-intentioned, the earmark moratorium has had real shortcomings. As various observers have noted, forbidding earmarks has shifted spending authority to the executive branch agencies, which are not directly accountable to the public. The moratorium also has not reduced federal spending, as some advocates anticipated. Troublingly, the earmark moratorium encouraged legislators to attempt to direct spending through the less-transparent practice of lettermarking. Perhaps most critically, this report’s analysis shows how the earmark moratorium weakened the House of Representatives’ capacity to coalesce majorities to enact legislation, a constitutional duty of the chamber.

This report’s analysis indicates that the House of Representatives should revisit the earmark moratorium and craft a means to allow legislators to request appropriated spending for particular projects in their districts. The process for requesting this directed spending should be transparent from initiation to conclusion and be subsequently audited to ensure funds were not wasted or misused. Access to directed spending should be made more equitable to legislators; senior members of the chamber too often have received a disproportionate share of earmarks. Finally, a new system of earmarks should contain prohibitions—such as forbidding earmarks to flow to a particular private corporation—that prevent quid pro quos between legislators and campaign donors.


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