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The term "earmark" has become something of a dirty word in Washington in recent years, with lawmakers pledging not to use the special funding carve-outs to aid groups back in their district. Taxpayer groups have long criticized earmarks for encouraging wasteful spending.
But could the pendulum now be swinging the other way? Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was quoted speaking favorably of earmarks, something you don’t hear every day in Washington.
Reid defended the practice by claiming earmarks are an American tradition.
"I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day," Reid said on May 6, 2014. "Keep in mind, that’s what the country has done for more than 200 years, except for the brief period of time in recent years that we haven’t done these."
"And I'll say this ...if there needs to be more transparency than what we had, then fine, do it," he added. "But it is wrong to have bureaucrats downtown make decisions in Nevada that I can make better than they can make."
We wondered if earmarks have been around that long, so we took a look.
First, some background. Although there is some variation in the definition of "earmark," the term generally refers to provisions in bills that set aside funds for specific projects or programs at the state or local level.
Shortly after celebrating victory in the 2010 midterm elections, House Republicans chose to institute a ban on earmarks. The House’s rules meant this ban effectively blocked the use of earmarks in the entire 112th Congress. Some say that the ban on earmarks has contributed to gridlock, and that bringing them back might grease the wheels for moving legislations through Congress.
The first instance of Congress using the practice we now refer to as earmarking was in the Lighthouse Act of 1789, said Don Ritchie, a historian with the Senate Historical Office. This measure, passed by the first Congress, allocated federal funds for the construction of lighthouses in states along the Atlantic coast.
The earmarking in this act was drawn up by the congressional delegation from Pennsylvania, which, along with the help of an interest group, pushed to include federal funding for a pier in Philadelphia, according to a 1991 report from the Senate Historical Office. This is also considered the first time an interest group helped craft legislation.
"It’s an old practice that has appeared and re-appeared under different names," Ritchie said.
Ritchie added that South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun used what amounts to an earmark in the Bonus Bill of 1817, which would have allocated money to be used for public works projects in the states. Calhoun’s fellow senator, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, used a similar method as part of his signature "American System" infrastructure initiative, according to Ritchie.
It is important to note that then-President James Madison vetoed Calhoun’s bill, arguing that Congress did not have the power to make such appropriations. However, just because it was vetoed by the president doesn’t mean the measure can’t still be considered an earmark.
Around the end of the 19th century, politicians began referring to the practice as "pork barrel" politics, and would tack funding for projects they wanted completed onto bills or lobby heads of agencies to request the project as part of their budgets, Ritchie said.
So the earmark has a long history. But that doesn’t mean it’s been an equally important tactic for all of that time.
Indeed, such prior examples pale compared to the surge in earmarked spending starting about two decades ago.
Between 1994 and 2005, total spending from earmarks more than doubled, rising from $218 million to $500 million, according to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress. Over the same time period, earmarked spending as a percentage of total appropriation rose from 1.3 percent to 3 percent.
That explosion of earmarking was a big departure from the work of earlier Congresses. Calling measures like Calhoun’s plan an earmark "misrepresents the whole history," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Even if they were earmark-ish, they were the exception, rather than the rule," he said.
We should note that not everyone has exactly the same definition for "earmark."
The Congressional Research Service acknowledged the difficulty of nailing down the definition of "earmark," noting in January 2006 that "one of the principal challenges to measuring earmarks in appropriation bills is defining the term and applying it consistently to the analysis."
The report also quotes Congressional Quarterly’s American Congressional Dictionary as allowing that under a looser definition, "virtually every appropriation" could be considered "earmarked."
Reid said Congress has used earmarked spending for "more than 200 years." A credible case can be made that Congress engaged in something like earmarking as long ago as 1789 and 1817. The tactic wasn’t used extensively and consistently during that whole period, and it really exploded in the past 20 years, before being phased out more recently. Still, Reid has a point that legislators have long directed spending, and there are 200-year-old (and older) examples of things that are very much like earmarks. We rate Reid’s claim Mostly True.
Correction: This report has been changed to remove a reference to an article that examined the history of the earmark. We incorrectly identified the source of article as Taxpayers for Common Sense, but their site only reproduced the article. The report was originally posted to Townhall.com
Email interview with Don Ritchie, historian, U.S. Senate Historical Office. May 8, 2014.
Email interview with Adam Jentleson of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s office, May 8, 2014
Interview with Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, May 12, 2014
The Lighthouse Act of 1789, U.S. Senate Historical Office, 1991.
Congressional Research Service, Earmarks in Appropriation Acts: FY1994, FY1996, FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005, January 26, 2006
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