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A History of Earmarks (or rather, the lack thereof)

Lately, it seems many Members of Congress have come to the dubious conclusion that earmarking “has been going on since we were a country,” as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid recently asserted on PBS. Frankly, that’s pure bunkum, and quite easy to challenge.

Just take a look at the history of the Defense Appropriations Bill: Taxpayers for Common Sense calculated that the 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62 earmarks; and by 2005, the defense bill had skyrocketed to 2,671 earmarks. The most recent bill spends money on anything from the eradication of brown tree snakes in Guam, to a virtual reality spray paint simulator system in Pine City, Minnesota. (And remember, this is the Defense Appropriations Bill. What do snakes and spray paint have to do with maintaining our nation’s security?)

The same story goes for the now notoriously larded-up Transportation Bill. When President Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill a half century ago, there were two projects singled out for funding. Last August, when Congress passed the latest six year, $286.4 billion Transportation Bill, there were, by one estimate, 6,371 of these “special” projects, ranging from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, N.Y., to $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas’ rural roads.

Ironically, the President once known for vetoing a Highway bill because it had – gasp! – 152 earmarks, is himself being honored with his very own $2.3 million earmark (for landscaping on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California).

Of course, if this recent historical accounting doesn’t convince you, let’s go even farther back, to the days when pork-barrel actually referred to a container for unwanted extras from slaughtered pigs.

The idea of funneling federal funds to specific local projects originally came from Congressman John C. Calhoun, when he proposed the Bonus Bill of 1817 to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier (referred to as “internal improvements”). Calhoun wanted to use the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States specifically for this program, arguing that the General Welfare and Post Roads clauses of the United States Constitution allowed for it. Without speaking to its merits, President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional. He explains his reasoning to Congress in his veto message:

Having considered the bill ... I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States. ... The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified ... in the ... Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers. ...

And regarding the General Welfare Clause, Madison responds:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms 'common defense and general welfare' embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

Directly from the horse’s mouth, ladies and gentlemen: earmarking is not an enumerated power of Congress. Nor is it written in stone anywhere, as the Honorable J. Denny Hastert seems to think; that is, earmarking is “what members do” or that members are best positioned to know where to put a “red light in their district” (urban planners in state and local governments are probably better adept to determine the position of traffic lights than the 20-something staffers piling on the earmarks in DC).

Ultimately, the fact that Congress once showed budgetary restraint and fiscal continence – even as recent as the 1970s – suggests that the propensity to earmark is not some inherent flaw in American democracy, but rather a willful irresponsibility now embraced by all too many members.

It’s time for Congress to realize that there is life after earmarks. We survived before them; we’ll survive after they’re gone.

By Julie Kesselman
This article appeared on on
February 22nd 


Distribution channels: U.S. Politics