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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A decade ago, Congress put an end to earmarks, a controversial budgeting tactic that allowed members to secure federal funding for specific projects in their districts, also known as pork barrel spending.
The earmark ban was a product for the first Tea Party Congress, elected during the 2010 midterms. Then-President Barack Obama joined Republicans in opposing the practice, calling it a “bad Washington habit that wastes billions of taxpayer dollars.”
Obama at the time sounded a little bit like fellow former Democratic president Bill Clinton did in 1996, when he declared at the State of the Union address that “The era of big government is over.”
The bipartisan consensus for fiscal restraint — albeit rhetorical more than genuine — is over now. Joe Biden is president and the era of big government is back.
Biden in March signed a nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief package, dubbed the American Rescue Plan. He’s also proposing trillions more in new spending on infrastructure and other priorities.
The federal purse is open and politicians have sticky fingers. The Democrat-controlled Congress is reinstating earmarks this year and members of both parties are dashing for cash.
Three of Iowa’s U.S. representatives have filed earmark requests totaling more than $51 million, The Gazette’s James Q. Lynch recently reported.
The requests span an array of infrastructure and community projects: Ashley Hinson wants $1 million to expand the parking apron at the Independence Municipal Airport. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is seeking $5 million for career counselors at the community college in her hometown of Ottumwa. Cindy Axne has requested $725,000 for outdoor play equipment and other improvements at a child care center in Ringgold County
Iowa’s Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra and Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley are not requesting kickbacks, maintaining the Obama view that the practice is wasteful.
Even at its peak, earmarks were tiny compared to federal spending on health care, Social Security and the military. Their comeback won’t necessarily trigger a new spending spree, but it does represent an embrace of the old business-as-usual in Washington, D.C.
In the current Congress — where Democrats have the thinnest of majorities and the president has a desire to at least appear bipartisan — earmarks act as a potentially powerful form of legal bribery. Lawmakers who are on the fence about a spending package might be won over by a sweetheart deal for their constituents back home.
Who’s to thank or blame for the new era of federal largesse? Former President Donald Trump, for one.
Trump in 2018 unsuccessfully called for reviving earmarks, which he said brought “great friendliness” to Congress. He also oversaw a double-digit increase in the national debt, even before pandemic expenses came up.
While previous Republican presidents at least paid lip service to sound budgeting, Trump gladly embraced runaway spending. Polls show Americans increasingly favor bigger government, a shift that Trumpism seemed to accelerate.
The one-term president still is the leader of the Republican Party. His big-spending record gives cover to fellow Republicans looking to siphon federal dollars for local pet projects.
Big government is back, and it’s bipartisan.
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