Zachary Courser & Kevin R. Kosar at AEI:

The Democratic leadership in Congress is currently making fast moves toward reimplementing earmarks after a 10-year moratorium…Based on our research, we have a few recommendations that congressional committees should take into consideration as they move forward.

Addressing how caps and limiting member requests may decrease the effectiveness of earmarking. The Appropriations Committee has stated they will limit earmarks to 1 percent of discretionary spending, and allow each member a maximum of 10 requests per fiscal year.

Placing a cap on earmarks may be a way to reassure the public about spending, but it may also limit the effectiveness of the practice if constituent and institutional needs are greater than the cap allows. On average, earmarks comprised 2.8 percent of discretionary spending in the three years before the moratorium. Congress should reconsider this stringent limitation.

Increasing transparency and reducing conflicts of interest. Recently released Appropriation Committee guidelines direct members to post their earmark requests on their websites, and to provide a link to the committee who received the request. This is not an adequate means of tracking, recording, and reporting aggregate earmark requests. In the brief period of earmarking reform between 2007 and 2011, requests were maintained in a similar manner with no centralized, searchable database available for constituents, interests, researchers, or Congress itself to analyze. If Congress is to earn the public’s trust, it needs a clear and user-friendly means of reporting its earmarking activity. Congress should standardize the form of request and invest the resources in creating a central webpage that allows for easy public access.

Preserving a bipartisan and institutional approach to earmarking. There was positive news this week from Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that earmark dollars would be evenly split between parties. Parties differ in their priorities for earmarks, and ensuring that each party’s earmarking priorities are equal and independent will help make them more effective for constituents and the institution. Cooperation over spending priorities will help to bring bipartisanship back into the budget process and allow members to better address the needs of their constituents. In the name of equity and ease of coordination, Democrats in the House of Representatives should offer the same deal to House Republicans.


Zachary Courser is the director of the Claremont McKenna College Policy Lab. Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.