The Hill: Democrats should firmly commit to not bring back earmarks

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Washington, February 12, 2020 | comments

The following op-ed appeared at TheHill.com on February 12, 2020.

While impeachment, Iowa and the State of the Union dominate headlines, House Democrat leaders are quietly trying to overturn the single biggest victory for the “Drain the Swamp” campaign in the last decade – the earmarks ban.

The moniker “earmarks” denotes a practice where House leaders buy members’ votes by guaranteeing funding for pet projects via must-pass government funding bills. An example: The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) secured $200 million of federal funds to help build and maintain the John Murtha Airport – nicknamed the “Airport for Nobody.” In 2009, ABC reported:

The John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport has an impressive $18 million runway made of reinforced concrete that's big enough to land any airplane in North America. The airport also has a $7 million air traffic control tower, a $14 million hanger and $8 million radar. Most of the time, the only thing the airport doesn't have is airplanes.

As taxpayers learned of examples like these and realized how their money was being spent, the public became furious. As a result, a ban on earmarks was a central plank in the tea party agenda. When Republicans took back the House in 2010, Congress banned earmarks. It wasn’t just Republicans, however. President Obama thought it was a good idea, too. He vowed to veto any bill that contained earmarks in his 2011 State of the Union address.

One decade later, House Democrats are toying with the idea of bringing earmarks back -- despite the political peril it would bring. Grassroots hero Donald Trump won a shocking nationwide campaign promising to challenge business as usual in Washington. Democratic frontrunner and two-time presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) boasts that he’s 100 percent funded by grassroots and regularly decries taking money from special interest groups. One might think the public – on both sides of the aisle – have no interest in seeing earmarks raised from the dead. Yet, House Democrats like Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) would like to see them reinstated. She’s meeting with freshmen and swing-seat Democrats to gauge their interest.

Why do it at all? Proponents suggest allowing earmarks will allow Congress to be more productive. By that, they mean Congress will pass more bills. But of what quality?

Restoring earmarks would encourage lazy legislating. The American people expect Congress to write smart legislation that a simple majority can support; 51 percent is not too a high hurdle for a legislative body that is tasked with governing for the common good.

But in the meantime, House Democrats should abandon their quest to reinstall earmarks, both for their political future’s sake and for the sake of the taxpayers.

Banks is the chair of the RSC Budget and Spending Task Force in the House of Representatives.

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