How Congressionally Directed Spending Strengthens Representative Democracy in Government Reform

Congressionally directed spending, also known as earmarks, has been subject to understandable criticism due to past abuses. However, eliminating the practice in 2011 also brought an end to a potentially valuable tool for fiscal responsibility and government functionality. Now is the time for Congress to reform and reclaim this important constitutional prerogative so that elected officials, who are directly accountable to voters and have firsthand understanding of their districts’ needs, are making critical spending decisions, and to ensure public trust in the earmarking process. The House majority has indicated that earmarks are on their list for action this Congress, which provides an opportunity for both parties to come together to revive and reform a key component of our nation’s representative democracy. In order for them to function properly, reforms must be in place to ensure Congress does not repeat past mistakes.

Previously, earmarks were often associated with backdoor campaign favors and wasted spending on unfinished projects. Earmarks gained a reputation as an expensive and opaque process that tacked on billions in extra spending each year. The infamous 2006 Bridge to Nowhere, an expensive earmarked infrastructure project in Alaska that never came to fruition, became the rallying cry for the eventual moratorium. At the same time, this represented the most egregious abuses of a system that, if subject to reform, has the potential to reform Congress for the better.

Despite these past abuses, congressionally directed spending (in conjunction with transparency and accountability) reflects a core aspect of our democracy: The Constitution delegates power over spending to the legislative branch. Earmarks provide several benefits, including:

1. Responsiveness to Local Needs

Congress was created with the notion that members would vote in the national interest while being elected by local voters. Congressionally directed spending is a way to directly respond to local priorities while maintaining a balance with national issues. Since the earmark moratorium, representatives have had to petition, lobby, and pressure federal agencies to consider local concerns that the members could previously address themselves. Federal agencies have been left making the bulk of the expenditure decisions regarding local problems without this direct avenue for local input on community needs. Lawmakers are the most well-informed about priorities at home, and they should be permitted to fulfill their responsibility to address their constituents’ most important issues.

2. Greater Accountability

A complete ban on congressionally directed spending cedes legislative spending power to the Executive Branch with no guarantee that these decisions will be any more efficient, transparent, or rigorous than congressionally approved proposals. A new system of congressionally directed spending that incorporates key revisions can create a process with more transparency for the public and accountability for lawmakers who are directly answerable to their voters.

3. Fiscal Responsibility

Contrary to the narrative of billions of dollars in earmarks being tacked on to already ballooning federal budgets, this type of spending does not actually increase overall federal spending. Agency budgeting is a zero-sum game: What is congressionally directed to one project must come from another. At their peak in 2006, earmarks constituted just over one percent of all federal outlays, and it is hard to argue that their elimination leads to fiscal responsibility: Since their mortarium, the federal deficit has increased over $5 trillion.

4. Increased Governmental Functionality

The latest government shutdown was an extreme – and yet all too familiar – example of the years of gridlock in federal governance. Congressionally directed spending increases member investment in legislative success by creating a new avenue for engagement. This allows legislators to govern more effectively in a polarized political climate, as they can balance principled compromise on national concerns against victories for their constituents back home.

While congressionally directed spending has a host of benefits and embodies a core pillar of our democracy, the need for reform is glaring. In order to rebuild public trust, the earmark process must be reformed with strong oversight, transparency, and increased vetting. Concrete reforms could include:

  • A requirement to post proposed reforms to member and committee websites prior to a vote
  • Project vetting by professional subcommittee staff and relevant federal agencies
  • A prohibition on for-profit directed spending
  • Limiting the total of directed spending to one percent of overall federal spending
  • Limiting the number of directed spending proposals a member can request
  • Regular GAO project audits with the potential to claw-back funds that are misused

With the proper reforms, congressionally directed spending can help reinvigorate the legislative process in a highly polarized era of legislative gridlock. Congress should move to strengthen the democratic process and revive its role as both a deliberative branch and the one charged by the Constitution with the responsibility for federal spending.