Earmark Reform

News, Washington Post, Senate Members, Richard Shelby, Earmark Reform

John Stennis, one of the lions of the old Senate, spent less than $5,000 on his first re-election campaign. But in 1982, facing a well-funded Republican opponent, Stennis’s political consultant told him he needed to raise $2 million, and recommended that the senator solicit contributions from the big defense contractors whose weapons systems Stennis had supported. Stennis, then eighty-one, was taken aback. “Would that be proper?” he asked.
(James K. W. Atherton, The Washington Post).[1]

While the 112th Congress instituted a moratorium on earmarking, there are clear rumblings by some members to re-institute the practice at the advent of the 113th Congress.  If this is the case, Congress must understand how deeply flawed the earmarking process was in the past and how to fix it with commonsense reforms.  Among other things, it encourages pay-to-play malfeasance, which siphons off scarce taxpayer dollars to reward contributors and lobbyists.  While some percentage of earmarks go to worthy projects with laudable goals, more often than not the process by which earmarks are allocated involves preferential treatment for campaign donors and meddles with agency priorities.

Furthermore, earmarks often circumvent the competitive bidding process used by agencies to ensure contracts are awarded to those offering the highest quality at the lowest price.  In a 2007 report, the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation stated that the majority of earmark projects were considered by the agency to be “low priority,” yet they were funded over higher priority, non-earmarked projects.  Worse, of those earmarked projects surveyed, 99 percent were not subject to the agency’s review and selection process.

The earmark problem is vividly illustrated in a recently published report by CREW on Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL).  CREW researchers found eight former Shelby staffers at lobbying firms procured nearly $267 million in federal earmarks for their clients since Fiscal Year 2008.  In return, those former staffers’ lobbying firms and clients have donated almost $1 million to Sen. Shelby’s campaign committee and leadership PAC since 1999.  Meanwhile, the lobbying firms employing those former staffers have collected over $10 million in lobbying fees from their clients since 2007.

In addition, CREW uncovered in our previous Pork Parade project how the earmarking practice can be manipulated by many members as means to use the federal treasury as a personal checking account to support their friends, families and campaign donors.

These examples illustrate why – should earmarking be reinstated – Congress must enact new reforms with teeth and enforcement mechanisms.  Over the years, neither party's efforts at reforming the earmarking process have been completely successful.  Legislative efforts to address the systemic flaws in the practice have been either too feckless or too draconian.  The conflict over earmarks pits those members who feel strongly that Congress must have the ability to control some spending for public work projects and social spending in their districts against those who view any such spending, “earmarks,” as inappropriate in any circumstance.  In the end, however, no matter how small a percentage of the budget, many Americans see earmarks as a symbol of self-serving politicians and believe their hard-earned tax dollars are being frittered away on wasteful projects, such as the Bridge to Nowhere.

But what made earmarks particularly odious in the past – the sheer lack of transparency, projects with seemingly no merit, the unseemly connection between campaign contributions and earmark recipients, etc. – need not and should not be a factor in any revival of the practice.  In the waning months of 2010, CREW convened a distinguished group of lobbyists and good governance groups to find common ground on a practical approach to the earmarking process.  The result was five principles of earmark reform:


To cut the cord between earmarks and campaign contributions, Congress should limit earmarks directed to campaign contributors.

  • Limiting total contributions from the earmark beneficiary and its affiliates to no more than $5,000 would help restore public confidence.



To eliminate any connection between legislation and campaign contributions, legislative staff should be barred from participating in fundraising activities.

  • The attendance of legislative staff at fundraisers suggests a connection between campaign donations and earmarks.  Further, it is awkward for staff members who might prefer to forgo such after-hours functions to decline to participate.



To increase transparency, Congress should create a new database of all congressional earmarks.

  • Information about lawmakers’ earmark requests is scattered across hundreds of web sites in a variety of formats with differing levels of details.  The funding levels for each earmark award are listed in a chart at the end of each spending bill.  While the data is technically available, it is virtually impossible to collect, understand and analyze all of the earmark information.  Congress should create a unified, searchable, sortable and downloadable database on a public website.



To ensure taxpayer money has been spent appropriately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) should randomly audit earmarks.

  •  Because oversight is essential to maintaining integrity in the earmarking process, the GAO should develop and implement a system to audit and report to Congress regularly on programs and projects funded through earmarks.



To promote Congressional responsibility without stifling innovation, Members should certify earmark recipients are qualified to handle the project.  

  • Requiring certification would increase accountability for earmarks, insuring they are awarded responsibly and to entities with appropriate expertise and capability.

If a diverse coalition of government reform groups and lobbyists can come to agreement on how to reform the process, however, there is no reason Congress cannot do the same.  If lawmakers do indeed revive earmarking, adopting these commonsense reforms would help restore Americans’ diminished confidence in Congress.  

If you’d like to see our 2010 panel discussion discussing these five principles for real earmark reform, see here.  See the principles in legislative format here, and Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) remarks regarding our principles here.

By passing comprehensive earmark reform, Congress would be doing the right thing for taxpayers and the overall integrity of the system. Approval ratings for Congress are dismal for good reason. Steps are currently being taken in Congress to address this problem and CREW will be updating this page regularly to reflect any progress on earmark reform, or lack thereof.

[1] As reported in So Much Damn Money, by Robert G. Kaiser, p. 150-151.