Washington insider
Earmarks: The history behind the connotation

By Rod Nofziger
OOIDA director of government affairs


The term “earmark” has become synonymous with wasteful government spending. Ranting politicians on the campaign trail and scandals such as those related to former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff have helped to propel “earmark” from the relative confines of Capitol Hill to conversations of Americans across the country.

Many people have come to believe that earmarks are essentially terrible and unnecessary. Some folks in the trucking community believe that if earmarks were done away with, most of our federal transportation funding woes would be solved. It’s not that easy.

First, what exactly is an earmark? Generally speaking, it is used to refer to the congressional designation of funds for a particular use.

The U.S. Constitution places the responsibility for opening up the purse strings and directing money from the U.S. Treasury squarely in the hands of Congress. This provides Congress with the power to earmark the funds it appropriates to be spent on specific programs, projects, studies, etc.

Earmarks are not new in Washington, but lawmakers’ use of them has undeniably exploded during the past decade. The peak of earmarking came in 2005 when 13,492 earmarks with an overall price tag of more than $24 billion were approved by Congress in various bills and signed into law by President Bush. Since then, some earmark-related reforms have been implemented, though plenty more still needs to be done.

The media, other government watchdog groups, and budget-minded lawmakers have focused on examples of excessive and wasteful earmark projects – and they’ve certainly had plenty to choose from. Many times those sorts of earmarks have been inserted into spending bills without being fully vetted or debated.

However, the reality is that plenty of earmarks are good public policy, are solid investments of public money that have been vetted and debated in the light of day. Without Congress asserting its constitutional role of directing funding, federal and state bureaucrats often get to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s not always good either.

U.S. representatives and senators are at least elected officials who can be voted out of office for making bad decisions. Bureaucrats seldom have that same level of accountability to the public.

The 2007 transportation appropriations bill included earmarks for several highway projects and programs. For example, the truck parking pilot program was to provide financial incentives for entities to build more truck parking along the nation’s highways. In short, Congress failed to approve that legislation, but kept funding the DOT through a continuing resolution and in doing so eliminated the original bill’s earmarks. The DOT was essentially handed all of that year’s discretionary funding related to highways with no restrictions on how to spend the money.

The DOT officials ultimately ignored previous congressional directives. As Rep. John Mica, R-FL, recalls, “Unelected bureaucrats, through a closed process, without public hearings, congressional oversight or consultation, chose to designate $853 million in taxpayer funds to just five congestion-pricing projects.” And, yes, congestion-pricing means toll roads.

The construction, repair and maintenance needs of our transportation infrastructure are mounting while at the same time the federal Highway Trust Fund is headed toward insolvency. Now, more than ever, Congress must spend taxpayer money efficiently and effectively. Spending reforms must be implemented, and difficult decisions must be made on funding priorities.

We must keep our U.S. representatives’ and senators’ feet to the fire and ensure that there is full transparency and public accountability in how many taxpayer dollars are spent and on what. However, simply eliminating all transportation earmarks just won’t get us to where we need to be or even where we want to go. LL