The letter drafted by Georgia’s lawmakers was, on its face, a routine one: The delegation wanted more federal money for dredging work at Savannah’s harbor. But look a little closer and the semantic gymnastics were apparent.
Congress’ earmark ban prevented the representatives from directly asking the House Appropriations Committee for what they wanted. They instead were left with a more indirect route: calling for their colleagues to increase funding for a broader account at the Army Corps of Engineers that bureaucrats would later divvy up for projects such as the one in Savannah.
“We write to urge you to give special priority to the Construction Account of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program,” stated the June 21 letter, which was signed by every member of the delegation, both Democrat and Republican.
The moratorium on earmarks, the practice of setting aside money for specific local projects in government spending bills, has changed the budget process in profound ways in the six-plus years since it was first implemented by then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
The aim was to cut down on spending abuses and blistering headlines after a series of scandals in the early 2000s culminated in one member of Congress being jailed for accepting bribes in exchange for securing earmarks.
Congress still holds the federal purse strings, but the moratorium forced lawmakers to remove themselves from the line-by-line choices of which local projects to fund. That decision-making power was handed to bureaucrats at federal agencies.
Quietly, lawmakers gripe that the move has hamstrung their ability to lobby for the university grants and public works projects that could benefit their constituents. And mounting frustration over the opaqueness of the new process has some lawmakers re-evaluating the ban.
“It’s something we really need to look at, particularly with the corps,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler.
Carter’s 1st Congressional District encompasses the Port of Savannah, which is in the middle of a years-long, nearly $1 billion project to deepen the harbor to make way for larger container ships passing through the Panama Canal.
State lawmakers from both parties have rallied around the project, considered Georgia’s top economic development initiative due to the jobs it would create and sizable return on investment, and they have ponied up $266 million in starter dough. But the port’s boosters have faced one problem after another compelling the federal government to follow through on its side of the financial bargain.
The Obama administration had been slow to set aside money for the project. There had been hope that President Donald Trump’s executive branch would be more amenable to greenlighting the desired $80 million to $100 million a year for the project given the Republican’s pledge to beef up infrastructure spending.
But Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request for the corps included only $50 million for the project. A day later, the agency decided against allocating any extra money for fiscal 2017 beyond an initial $42.7 million, catching Georgia officials off guard.
“It’s very frustrating,” Carter said. “Particularly when you’re talking about a project that involves the economic engine of the Southeast.”
Back in the days of earmarks, Georgia’s lawmakers could have urged their colleagues in Congress to include $100 million for the port in each of the fiscal 2017 and 2018 spending bills. Instead, they were left giving only the broadest of outlines to the corps and hoping that project managers ultimately listened to their requests.
“(Georgia U.S. Sen.) Johnny Isakson and I used to have to go over to the Corps of Engineers and talk to the bureaucrats hat in hand,” said former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who represented Georgia’s 1st Congressional District through 2015 and served on the Appropriations Committee. “It was a long process full of faithless people, and you didn’t know if they were shooting straight with you or not.”
Revisiting the ban
Earmarks such as the $400 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska became synonymous with wasteful congressional spending and turned much of the public against the practice. And reports about spending on parochial projects such as repairs to an antique train coach shop also drew ridicule.
But proponents such as Kingston say most of that spending was small-ball and solved real needs such as new on ramps for aging bridges and new military barracks at local bases. He said lawmakers are far more equipped to determine when a new highway, university or dike needs to be funded than “non-elected political bureaucrats who are sequestered behind ivory tower walls in Washington, D.C.”
The frustration has led to a quiet effort among some lawmakers to bring back some version of the practice.
But the optics are tough, especially as Trump and his supporters advocate for draining the Washington swamp. Some supporters are fidgety about using the term “earmarks” at all given how pejorative the concept has become, preferring “congressionally directed spending.”
House Republicans were on the cusp of rolling back the moratorium behind closed doors soon after last year’s presidential election when U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan stepped in to slam on the brakes. He promised a public debate in the new year.
That discussion has yet to materialize as other high-profile debates over health care and taxes have sucked up much of the political oxygen on Capitol Hill. A Ryan spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The speaker has spoken in favor of the ban, as has Vice President Mike Pence.
Georgia’s Democrats appear to all be in favor of bringing back the practice, while the Republicans are split.
Some want to rebrand it with a new name, limit its scope and install safeguards to protect against abuse.
“Right now the corps is given a budget and they kind of go out there and do what they want to do. We want to put Congress back in charge,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans. “It won’t be where they hand out money to this district and that district.”
Others say Congress should refrain from picking winners and losers.
“We’re here to clean up Washington,” U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said late last year. “Earmarks are not the way forward. There are a lot of other ways for us to take our constitutional authority back, and we need to look at those things.”
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., thinks an overhaul of Congress’ budget process can end the need for earmarks, while Isakson, who once pushed for projects of his own before backing the moratorium, indicated the time is not right to bring the process back.
“There’s a lot to be said for elected officials having some say in where capital outlay goes,” he said. “But that’s a political issue that would dwarf the real issue (of securing money for Savannah) if we took it on right now.”
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to release the details of its proposed fiscal 2018 plan for the Corps of Engineers on Tuesday. The Savannah dredging project is not expected to receive a penny more than the $50 million the Trump administration proposed, specifically because of the earmark ban.
Project backers are hoping construction efforts will be buoyed by roughly $50 million more in the corps’ separate general construction account.
“That is necessary to ensure the most cost-effective completion,” said Jamie McCurry, the senior director of administration and government affairs for the Savannah port. “The longer you draw it out, the more expensive the project gets, and every year that the project is not finished is a year of forgone benefits.”