Jim Clyburn

You’ve heard Democrats and Republicans rail against earmarks. Commonly derided as wasteful or self-motivated, earmarks do indeed sometimes show hints of corrupt forces at work within our institutions. But like them or not, approving the tidal wave of earmarked spending in state and federal budgets each year represents one of the very few times Republicans and Democrats actually work together.

At worst, an earmark abuses the public’s trust in government by using tax money to curry political favor, all hidden within government bureaucracy.

At best, targeted appropriations pump resources into worthy community projects that may not normally get the time of day for any number of reasons — timing, competing priorities, petty issues and even a state’s politics.

Yes, a few earmarks can be what some call “pork barrel” spending — wasteful and irrelevant — but basic earmark criticism is over process — funding approved outside normal procedures.

At one time, when government moved along slower than it does now, earmarks served as a way for lawmakers to deliver benefits for their constituents. These days, intransigence and frustration rules.

Earmark popularity in Washington exploded through the 1990s and 2000s with bad actors drawing criticism leading to Democratic reforms in 2007 to increase transparency behind the funding requests. The number of earmarks dropped.

But in 2010, new tea party members doubled down, enacting a meaningless “earmark moratorium” — an easy talking point since most tea party members don’t believe in the governing part of government anyway. Not surprisingly, earmarks never really went away and government dysfunction spiked. The ideological wandering continued in 2016 when Republicans, back in power, abandoned their moratorium — among other things.

Now, earmarks are poised for a comeback, with liberals and conservatives seemingly ready to give up on a decade of disingenuous debates over deficit spending and moral high ground.

Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, for one, has always been an earmark supporter. Rural pockets of South Carolina between Paxville and Nixville, often left out of major projects, have reaped hundreds of millions in Clyburn earmarks.

“These are communities which were systematically denied state and federal resources for decades. I believe as their representative, my work should be transparent and open, so it can be held up to public scrutiny. If the projects I have funded don’t meet with their approval, voters may speak their mind every two years in November,” Clyburn said back in 2008, as earmark hysteria was ramping up.

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed $152 million in state earmarks and the legislature promptly overrode him, another rare show of bipartisanship. 

On the left, critics correctly point out that earmarks could signal a return to old, familiar institutions just as the liberal progressive movement shines a light on the discriminatory systems that protected those in power over the last century. Safeguards must protect against that kind of backsliding.

But we are in need of a reset. Transparent and accountable earmarks represent a way we can begin rebuilding trust in our government.

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