Compass: House passes $1.9 trillion in more COVID cash; earmarks on the horizon?

March 1st, 2021

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill, where there are still 7,000 National Guard troops deployed, 5,000 of which will remain in Washington DC beyond the originally anticipated departure date of March 12. Security theater is now part of our daily lives. (Related: Conservatives to Pelosi: tear down this wall.)

The House and Senate are in session this week. Early Saturday morning, the House passed their $1.9 trillion COVID legislation. According to the Wall Street Journal, only $825 billion of that is directly related to COVID-19 relief (vaccine distribution, payments to individuals, restaurants and live venues, airline payrolls, and Paycheck Protection funding for small businesses). The rest is targeted at program expansion and unrelated policy changes, including an increase to a federal $15 minimum wage.

Among the various provisions are $350 billion for state bailouts. However, the allocation formula is based on unemployment in the fourth quarter of 2020, meaning that states like New York and California, which kept their economies closed, will receive more bailout money than states like Florida and South Dakota, who were open for business.

The legislation now awaits consideration by the Senate, where Senate Democrats are hoping to use the budget reconciliation process to quickly move a package through. Reconciliation is privileged in the Senate, meaning debate time is limited and it cannot be filibustered, so cloture (the 60 votes required to end a filibuster) is not applicable. These plans encountered a hiccup this last week when the Senate’s parliamentarian issued her opinion that the $15 minimum wage violates the rules regarding reconciliation, and cannot be included.

Senate Democrats can, of course, vote to overrule the parliamentarian, though such a move would upend years of Senate precedent. More from Dave Hoppe, former chief of staff to GOP Majority Leader Trent Lott, here.

On Earmarks

House Democrats have also unveiled their plan to bring back the practice of earmarking, which has largely fallen by the wayside since House & Senate Republicans barred the practice in 2011. Earmarks, or the more white-washed term of “congressionally directed spending,” are when individual Members are able to petition the Appropriations Committee to fund specific projects or interests in their districts or states.

It’s been a while since earmarking was de rigueur on Capitol Hill, which is perhaps why some on the Right are claiming that earmarking is a good thing; that it helps build consensus to pass important legislation, or gives Members of Congress more control over how money is spent.

I’ll be blunt: these claims are wrong. Earmarks lead to corruption, they do not build consensus — they support uniparty aims by empowering bullying, cowardice, and legislative bribery. Moreover, they do not give Members more control of spending. Consider that in the recent surface transportation bill, where earmarks normally abound, 92 percent of the funding is distributed via statutory formulas and controlled by state and local governments — not bureaucrats, or Congress.

Here are four more reasons Congress should oppose bringing back earmarks.

  1. Earmarks always lead to corruption. The minute Members of Congress get an ounce of power to dictate where money goes, the temptation to abuse it expands proportionately. The one thing that Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Chakkah Fattah (D-Pennsylvania), Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff all have in common is that they went to jail for earmark related daliences. No, so-called “transparency rules” will not fix the system, because the rules are written and enforced by the same people who are benefiting from the system. Rules which are written by Congress to enforce on itself, can and will be waived, manipulated, and ignored. Look at PAYGO, discretionary spending enforcement rules, and basically every rule designed to “cap” spending — they are waived and suspended constantly. Earmark rules will be no different.

  2. Earmarks benefit the powerful. Earmarking is not an equal sport. The more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get an earmark, or several. Access to the process is controlled by congressional leadership and the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, who can deny, leverage, or otherwise hold hostage requests by any Members, for any reason. Earmarking further divides the Congress into the powerful and the marginalized, and the ranks of the marginalized grow every time those Members think for themselves. Vote the wrong way in committee, oppose your leadership, or take an unpopular stance? Kiss your earmark goodbye. In other words, earmarks are just another tool of leadership to enforce group think.

  3. Earmarks distort the legislative process & culture of Capitol Hill. When earmarks are involved, the actual substance of the legislation at hand recedes in importance. Members begin to care far less about what Congress is passing, so long as it contains their earmark. On the staff level, too, the incentives change. No longer are staff thinking creatively about how to address problems, they’re taking endless meetings about earmarks with county & state officials. Overnight, 535 member offices which used to be focused on policy debates, will now have to turn their staffs into experts on selecting locations of water sewage plants, highway systems, military supplies, fire department equipment, and much more. And any mistake could lead to ethics investigations and public humiliation. Earmarks subsubme the legislative process, sap it of creativity, and change the incentives for how Members vote.

  4. Earmarks buy off cheap Republicans. Relatedly, earmarks put Members up for sale. In 2003, on the new Medicare Prescription Drug entitlement bill, Republican leadership held open the vote for over 4 hours trading earmarks for votes or promising to cancel earmarks of conservative lawmakers who wouldn’t give in. There is a reason Democrats in the House, who have the slimmest majority in over a century, want to bring earmarks back. Earmarks are the currency by which they can purchase a handful of cheap Republicans into supporting amnesty, changes to our election laws, and other legislative mayhem.

Yes, earmarking also leads to more big government spending. But in my mind, that is almost beside the point. When a process leads disproportionately to corruption, and the consideration of legislation is transformed from policy deliberation into what is effectively bribery, the amount being transacted in dollars pales in comparison to the integrity of the representative process itself being diminished and traded away.

 

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One More Thing…

Check out CPI’s Phil Reboli latest installment of the Minute Man Moment. And I’m over at the Edmund Burke Foundation breaking down news of the day on their new podcast, NatConSquad.