More than a decade ago, the annual congressional practice of including members’ earmarked items in the annual federal budget fell out of favor amid a Tea Party frenzy over spending. Earmarks, considered synonymous with pork-barrel spending, were banned at the GOP’s urging. President Barack Obama vowed not to approve any.
Earmarks returned in the omnibus spending bill signed this month by President Joe Biden. Once banned, it was clear they hadn’t been the root of waste and abuse they were cracked up to be. Now they are called community project funds.
For those who might not recall, earmarks described any congressionally directed spending, tax or tariff benefit that helps a specific entity, state, locality, or congressional district outside a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process. This means a relatively small, but substantial, part of the budget gets targeted to hometown projects for which individual lawmakers can claim credit. Naturally, incumbents running for reelection like to show they have brought home some quantity of bacon in the form of an airport terminal, sewer system, social-service program, or other improvement.
These expenditures bend with the preferences of local elected leaders. The four House members whose districts fall fully within Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, all got their names on $50 million worth this go-round. Examples include $14.8 million for engineering and construction at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, and a $10 million grant to Stony Brook University for biomedical research institutions.
The distribution is bipartisan: Republican Lee Zeldin has his name attached to $8.5 million for the intercoastal waterway; Democrat Tom Suozzi, $1 million for the North Hempstead Beach Park Phase 1; Republican Andrew Garbarino, $3 million for a Town of Islip sewer extension project; Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, $2 million for Uniondale economic investments.
Those tempted to dismiss these appropriations as wasteful congressional “pork” might also consider how the White House when run by either party might shift resources politically to swing states.
Several caveats go with the earmark revival. Lawmakers now must demonstrate community need for their requests and certify that they and family members aren’t profiting. Also, logic dictates that questionable projects such as Alaska’s notoriously bloated and expensive “bridge to nowhere” project that helped end earmarks in the first place should be sussed out and left out. Though approved by Congress, the relevant federal agency is due to follow the right procurement process as it should. And as prior boondoggles have proved, nonprofit earmarks should be scrutinized as carefully as any others.
If done right, these project funds, or earmarks, will follow priorities that local representatives presumably know better than D.C. bureaucrats. That’s the populist plus.
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