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VERIFY: Here's what an earmark is, and why there is controversy over their return to Congress

The Verify team looked into earmarks and why, after a 10-year ban, they are making a comeback in DC.

WASHINGTON — Across social media, there have been a lot of posts about earmarks in the last month, following a decision by congressional leaders to bring the process back after a decade-long ban. 

For some, earmarks epitomize big spending and corruption. For others, it is an important way for lawmakers to be more responsive to their constituents. 

The Verify team is getting the facts about earmarks, so that people at home can consider the issue for themselves. 

QUESTION: 

What are earmarks, and why are they returning to politics?

THE SOURCES:

THE ANSWER:

Earmarks are a way for individual members of Congress to request funding for a project directly during the budget process.

WHAT WE FOUND:

To learn more about how earmarks work, the Verify team contacted a trio of political science experts, who explained that an earmark can be defined as a way for an individual member of Congress to request funding during the budget process for a particular project in their district. 

"Let's say there's a bridge that needs to be repaired," Dr. Fauntroy of Howard University said. "And we're past the point of doing some infrastructure money. Or there's a school that needs to be repaired. Or there's some investment that needs to take place." 

Jason Grumet, from the Bipartisan Policy Center, emphasized that this doesn't necessarily add money to the budget. It just shifts the decision making from the executive branch to the legislative branch.

"After Congress decides how much money the nation is going to spend in a given year," Grumet said. "At that moment, then it's the bureaucracy -- the executive branch -- that decides about all of that. The Department of Transportation decides the transportation funding. Agriculture decides where all the agriculture funding goes. The idea of earmarks is that members of Congress themselves can make proposals for specific aspects of that funding. But it's all done within the same budget."

Hans Noel, from Georgetown University, said that this would allow members of Congress to fight for projects in their district, something which has been done for centuries. 

"The idea of paying attention to your own home state, that's as old as the republic," Noel said. 

Earmarks were banned by party leaders in 2010, amid concerns that they lead to wasteful spending and possible corruption. Groups like the Citizens Against Government Waste have been quick to post critiques of the return of earmarks. 

"It is worth revisiting why earmarks were eliminated in the first place," the group wrote in an online post from May 6. "The practice circumvents the competitive process whereby agencies weigh the merits of spending projects that move from local review to the state to a federal agency, which awards money to the highest priority projects with the context of the statutory requirements enacted by Congress."

CAGW has already identified numerous projects that "have raised eyebrows" for the large price tag.

"There's a concern that if you're deciding where the money goes for some sort of project by deciding how it will help one member of Congress, this could be corrupt or could be unfair," Noel said. 

On the other side of this debate, there are lawmakers like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt), the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

"I have a deep understanding of Vermont's communities," he said on the Senate floor when announcing the change. "Vermonters and their needs. But for the past decade, I've had to fight for them here in Washington with my hands tied behind my back." 

Lawmakers like Leahy have argued that earmarks allow for members of Congress to be more responsive to the needs of their constituents. 

"In an increasingly politicized environment," Fauntroy said. "Members of Congress want to be able to go to their states and their district and say 'I earmarked x dollars for that project.' So constituents can say 'Oh wow, Senator so-in-so or Representative so-in-so understands our needs and is responding to them.'"

Earmark Rules:

The earmarks are back, but not without some new rules. These rules are based off of Rule XLIV, along with some additional requirements announced by the Senate leadership. 

  • A lawmaker cannot have a financial interest in the earmark

  • The earmark money cannot be directed to "For-Profit" entities

  • Every request must be made in writing, and posted publicly in an online database. (Each earmark must be listed publicly for 48 hours before it can be included in an approved bill). 

  • There's a one-percent cap on discretionary spending for earmarks

  • Government Accountability Office is required to "audit a sample of enacted congressionally directed spending items and report its findings to Congress"

As a result of this rule change, the earmarks are all listed on a public website, which can be found here. The proposals are listed for each Representative. There are many proposals, and not all that are listed will be included in the final budget. 

The decision on whether to include an earmark will be made by the Appropriations Committee, followed by the chamber as a whole, when they vote on the budget. 

More Bipartisanship Due To Earmarks?

Bipartisanship might seem like an urban myth these days, but our experts said that earmarks could trigger more cooperation between the two parties.

"The main thing that earmarks allow is negotiation really," Noel said. "In Congress, one of the things people complain about is you know - Democrats want what they want and Republicans want what they want. And they never want to compromise. If you want to compromise with something, you have to have something to give them."

Dr. Fauntroy said this "horse-trading" can be an effective way to bring other people to the table. 

"[A lawmaker may say] 'I'm not crazy about this bill. But I literally have a bridge that I need to build in my district," Fauntroy said. 

Grumet agreed that bipartisanship, however rare as it may be, could be increased through earmarks. 

"Democracy is about give and take," he said. "It's hard if there's nothing to give or take."