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Capitol Voices

Democrats Bring Back the Swamp’s Favorite Tool

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

After four years of a president who put America First and fought to drain the swamp in Washington, the swamp is coming back with a vengeance. House Democrats have announced their plans to officially resurrect one of the most corrupt and wasteful practices in congressional history: earmarks.


While the history of earmarked spending in Congress goes back centuries, the modern form took hold in the 1990s and culminated in the 2000s, when infamous earmarks were exposed, like the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” an indoor rainforest in Iowa, a Teapot Museum, and absurd research projects like analyzing goth culture.

According to the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, $15.9 billion was spent on unauthorized earmarks last year. Since 1991, Congress has doled out over 111,000 earmarks worth nearly $375 billion. Congress has routinely spent millions on absurd projects that have been earmarked for years, yet this waste still finds its way into the same spending bills that fiscal conservatives reject. In just the last year, Congress spent $65 million for Pacific coastal salmon, $24 million for aquatic plants, $11 million for fish screens, $25 million for wild horses, and $663,000 for brown tree snake eradication in Guam.

Earmarks are also used as the grease to help enable Washington’s spending addiction. They have been used as a quasi-legalized form of bribery to entice members of Congress to approve large spending bills and other DC priorities that would violate a politician’s principles. While the overall cost per earmark may pale in comparison to the nation’s trillion-dollar deficit, earmarks represent the classic Washington consensus that the debt is irrelevant, deficits don’t matter, and that somehow taxpayer money belongs to Washington politicians first, not the people. In an era of trillion-dollar deficits and a $27 trillion debt, it is hard to imagine how we will ever be able to restore any form of financial responsibility if big spenders in Congress are able to use earmarks to keep spending money we don’t have.


Earmarks have also been used to buy and sell votes and reward favors. Earmarks ultimately led to several Members of Congress being convicted on corruption charges. In order to restore public trust in Congress, the practice of earmarking was officially put on a moratorium in 2011 under Republican leadership. I cannot imagine a worse way to build trust in the institution of Congress than to resurrect a system that has been roundly rejected as corruptive and wasteful for decades. Democrats even acknowledged the possibility of corruption, saying, “it's worth the risk to bring them back because earmarks would increase their leverage to pass critical legislation with a narrow majority.”

It should surprise no one that one of the first things Democrats do with their new majorities in Congress is bring back the swamp’s favorite tool. Under the leadership of a president who has spent 50 years in Washington, the swamp is poised to overflow and American taxpayers will be the flood victims. We must stand up and fight any return to the days when wasteful and corrupt earmarks ran this town. Instead of resurrecting them, we in Congress should permanently ban them, once and for all.


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