February 24, 2021

The Return of Earmarks

3 min

Update | March 1, 2021

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman DeLauro announced that the House will include member requests for community project funding in FY22 appropriations bills as long as they meet certain requirements. New rules governing the House earmark process will expand beyond existing House rules, which they expect will provide for greater transparency and member accountability. We do anticipate that Chairwoman DeLauro will offer additional guidance in the coming weeks beyond what has been provided.

Chairwoman DeLauro has publicized a list of reforms. Here are some examples:

  • All member requests must be submitted online and be searchable.
  • The Committee will release a list of the projects funded.
  • Members must certify that they have no financial interest, nor will their spouse or immediate family have financial interest, in their requests.
  • For-profits are banned from receiving funds.
  • A 1% cap will be placed on all discretionary spending.
  • Members will be limited to 10 requests.
  • The GAO will conduct an audit of a sample of projects that receive funding.
  • Members must provide compelling evidence that demonstrates there is a true need.

Republicans' opposition to lifting the ban on earmarks appears to be weakening. Several GOP lawmakers have indicated they would support including earmarks as long as the process is protected from abuse.

We will provide additional information as Congress continues its work to include member-directed funding in the appropriations process.

Congress is expected to lift the ban on congressionally directed spending, otherwise known as earmarks. The earmark moratorium was established in 2011 under Republican control and prohibits member-directed projects from receiving direct appropriations. Democrats acknowledge that earmarks need to be overhauled in order to rid the stigma that earmarks are problematic. Efforts to recast the earmark process could include new restrictions on who would qualify. It is plausible Congress will establish a new set of rules that limit funding to only certain state and local projects. It is not clear yet how Republicans will respond. Rule 30 of the current House GOP rules bans Republicans from requesting earmarks.

Prior to the 2011 ban, earmarks were prevalent and were often viewed as an effective means to direct federal dollars to local projects. However, during this period several scandals associated with earmarks, such as the infamous Alaskan "bridge to nowhere," gave earmarks an unflattering reputation. While these scandals received a lot of negative attention, and were ultimately responsible for the ban, earmarks also directed spending toward worthwhile projects like hospitals, universities, and community development ventures throughout the country.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (MD-05), a former appropriator, and other lawmakers have argued to bring earmarks back. One such argument cites the fact that lawmakers know their district needs better than the administration.

It will be interesting to see how the 117th Congress will recalibrate earmarks and the proposal process. We will update this alert as soon as more information is available.