A Guide to Earmarks

Next week the House of Representatives will execute Speaker Pelosi’s agenda for congressional reform. While earlier versions of the proposed bills and rules have been made available to the public, the final versions have not. As one who has exercised himself in the past on the issue of pork (mostly in defense bills), I hope to help others assess these reforms quickly and effectively when they are made public.

I articulate below what I believe are useful criteria for assessing whether the Pelosi earmarking reforms are effective or not. Having worked the congressional pork system for over 30 years, I believe I can tell the difference between phony and real pork reforms.

1) How does the reform define “earmark?” Past ­ mostly Republican ­ loopholes have limited the definition of “earmark” to just “provisions” in bills. In fact, most earmarks are not in the text of bills but are in committee reports when the bills are initially reported to the floor of the House and the Senate, and many ­ but not all – are included the text of “conference reports,” specifically in the text of something called the “Joint Explanatory Statement,” (JES) which many mistake as the “conference report.” (In relatively rare instances, new earmarks are introduced in the JES [“Immaculate Conceptions”] but most in the JES are simply a final version of what was in either the House-passed or Senate-passed bill.)

Another favorite Republican loophole is to restrict earmarks to just those intended for “non-federal entities.” In DOD authorization and appropriation bills, that eliminates about 98% of all earmarks, which are directly appropriated to the military services for subsequent distribution to various contractors. To cite a notorious example, the appropriation for the “Bridge to Nowhere” was to the Department of Transportation, not directly to a private contractor; it would not qualify as “pork” under the “non-federal entity” loophole.

Some members of Congress like to pretend that just the appropriations committees push pork. Oh, please! Authorization bills and reports, such as from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are just as porcine. In fact, when I worked for Senator Domenici, the Senate Appropriations Committee (under both Republican and Democratic leadership) insisted that they would not approve our ­ or any other Senator’s ­ request to include a pork item in their bills or reports unless it had already been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee and its bill and/or report. Members like Senator McCain who assert that “pork” is bad because it has not been authorized in bills like the Armed Services Committees’ National Defense Authorization Acts are selling snake-oil of the rankest sort. No pork should be let off the hook if it is “authorized.”

In short, the definition of the term “earmark” must include all legislative vehicles and all possible recipients if it is to be considered a serious or meaningful reform.

2) Is sunshine enough? Most Democratic and Republican earmarking reforms have argued that more information about earmarks will restrain them. Their reforms seek to identify what member proposed the earmark ­ even, in some cases, what lobbying firm is pushing it. Some proposals also seek an explanation of the earmark. As written most of these proposals amount to little more than free advertising for earmarks and the members (and lobbyists) pushing them.

Ask first, who gets to write the description of the earmark. It is usually unstated, but the implication is that the sponsor of the earmark gets to write the description. Hopefully, no one needs an explanation for why that is a bad idea. In other cases, the implication is that the staff of the committee sponsoring the bill (or report) will write the description. That is hardly an improvement: committees, and especially their staff, are not in the business of alienating members by writing objective, complete, and frank assessments of the members’ handiwork.

If the “sunshine” is to be something other than blinding, the earmark does need to be described but by an objective, if not independent, party. For example, an assessment of the earmark by GAO (and of the cost by CBO) would be very illuminating. So as to not overburden GAO or CBO with the thousands of earmark descriptions that many bills would require, it might also be useful to have a description from the federal agency that will be required to execute the earmark. Indeed, dong so would force out into the open the current subterranean practice in many federal agencies when project managers express essential support to the authorization and appropriation committee staffs for the majority of earmarks that appear in their bills and reports.

Of course, all these earmark descriptions by any party will need to be printed in public congressional reports ­ with the authors of the descriptions specifically identified.

3) With or without “sunshine,” any earmark should be subjected to good governance in the form of appropriate contracting for it once it is legislated. Specifically, this would mean competing the contract for the earmark once the associated legislation is enacted. In other words, when Congressman Marty Meehan wants to add “fleece liners” to Department of the Army spending for winter uniforms, why should the winter-wear manufacturer in his district be guaranteed the work? Why not compete the contract for the earmark? Why not nationally? If the case can be made to increase Army spending for winter uniforms, why should the contact be a sole source one guaranteed to just one producer? Members of Congress like to talk about how much they want to improve federal contracting, especially with competition. Why not start the reforming at home?

These are what I believe the major criteria for distinguishing phony from real earmarking reform. Others may also have good ideas, but each should be inspected for loopholes and incompleteness.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at: winslowwheeler@comcast.net.


More articles by:

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

Weekend Edition
January 24, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
A Letter From Iowa
Jim Kavanagh
Aftermath: The Iran War After the Soleimani Assassination
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Camp by the Lake
Chuck Churchill
The Long History of Elite Rule: What Will It Take To End It?
Robert Hunziker
A Climate Time Bomb With Trump’s Name Inscribed
Andrew Levine
Trump: The King
Jess Franklin
Globalizing the War on Indigenous People: Bolsonaro and Modi
James Graham
From Paris, With Tear Gas…
Rob Urie
Why the Primaries Matter
Dan Bacher
Will the Extinction of Delta Smelt Be Governor Gavin Newsom’s Environmental Legacy?
Ramzy Baroud
In the Name of “Israel’s Security”: Retreating US Gives Israel Billions More in Military Funding
Vijay Prashad
What the Right Wing in Latin America Means by Democracy Is Violence
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Biden’s Shameful Foreign Policy Record Extends Well Beyond Iraq
Louis Proyect
Isabel dos Santos and Africa’s Lumpen-Bourgeoisie
Nick Pemberton
AK-46: The Case Against Amy Klobuchar
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Promtheus’ Fire: Climate Change in the Time of Willful Ignorance
Linn Washington Jr.
Waiting for Justice in New Jersey
Ralph Nader
Pelosi’s Choice: Enough for Trump’s Impeachment but not going All Out for Removal
Mike Garrity – Jason Christensen
Don’t Kill 72 Grizzly Bears So Cattle Can Graze on Public Lands
Joseph Natoli
Who’s Speaking?
Kavaljit Singh
The US-China Trade Deal is Mostly Symbolic
Cesar Chelala
The Coronavirus Serious Public Health Threat in China
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Must Remain Vigilant and on Guard Against US Hybrid Warfare
Robert Fantina
Impeachment as a Distraction
Courtney Bourgoin
What We Lose When We Lose Wildlife
Mark Ashwill
Why Constructive Criticism of the US is Not Anti-American
Daniel Warner
Charlie Chaplin and Truly Modern Times
Manuel Perez-Rocha
How NAFTA 2.0 Boosts Fossil Fuel Polluters, Particularly in Mexico
Dean Baker
What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace With Productivity
Mel Gurtov
India’s Failed Democracy
Thomas Knapp
US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Free Speech?
Winslow Myers
Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”
Jeff Mackler
U.S. vs. Iran: Which Side are You On?
Sam Pizzigati
Braggadocio in the White House, Carcinogens in Our Neighborhoods
Christopher Brauchli
The Company Trump Keeps
Julian Vigo
Why Student Debt is a Human Rights Issue
Ramzy Baroud
These Chains Will Be Broken
Chris Wright
A Modest Proposal for Socialist Revolution
Thomas Barker
The Slow Death of European Social Democracy: How Corbynism Bucked the Trend
Nicky Reid
It’s Time to Bring the War Home Again
Michelle Valadez
Amy Klobuchar isn’t Green
David Swanson
CNN Poll: Sanders Is The Most Electable
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Dire Need for “Creative Extremists”—MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Jill Richardson
‘Little Women’ and the American Attitude Toward Poverty
David Yearsley
Watching Star Wars in Berlin