At last check, the White House had put in a bid for $10 billion U.S. tax dollars to assist Ukraine. As we speak, there are high-powered lobbying efforts underway not only by Ukraine, but by countless special interests also looking to make bank in Congress’ next budget. And many are pinning hopes on a controversial spending practice that’s made a quiet comeback after being banned a decade ago: Earmarks.
It may be the most infamous earmark ever requested: $223 million to build a bridge in Alaska longer than the Golden Gate to get to an island with a small airport and about 50 residents.
Rep. Don Young (January 2018): I was the “Bridge to Nowhere” and you all heard of that, yes, it was an earmark.
Republican Congressman Don Young defended his request for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” at a hearing in 2018:
Young (January 2018): And of course I've suffered that ever since, the bridge has not been built, it should have been built.
The example lives on as a legendary symbol of Congressional excess and waste.
Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, is an outspoken critic of earmarking.
Senator Joni Ernst: Certainly the way I explain it is it's very pricey pet projects for politicians. And the way I explain it to constituents when you have 535 people struggling for a pot of money, it ends up being misspent.
Sharyl: And when you say “pet projects,” it's not necessarily just something a member likes the sound of. Maybe that member is getting a benefit in some way for it?
Ernst: Absolutely. And what we have seen in the past and indications of this is maybe you have a buddy or a supporter that you want to direct dollars for and in exchange get dollars for your campaign or support for an election. So that's why we call it a form of bribery, is you can trade projects for other levels of support outside of the Senate or outside of the House.
As a correspondent for CBS News, I investigated Congress’ addiction to billions of dollars worth of earmarks.
Ralph Regula ducked questions about his earmarks for his wife’s library, where his daughter was a paid director.
Charles Rangel didn’t want to say much about his $2 million earmark for a library and center named after himself.
Maurice Hinchey defended spending $11 million on a state-of-the-art building solely to benefit the grape and wine industry.
And Stephanie Tubbs Jones got touchy when I asked her about her $1 million in tax money she gave to Sherwin Williams - a paint company in her home district.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (October 2007): I can’t be forced to talk to you.
Sharyl: I’ve been asking for an interview
Tubbs Jones: Don’t play me like that.
Sharyl: Please take your hands off me.
Tubbs Jones: I’m not gonna take, I didn't mean any offense, OK?
There were earmark requests for museums to house teapots, old neon signs, prison artifacts, and the history of mules. Earmarks for beer research. And lobster dog treats. Earmarks were even part of bribery scandals that landed members of Congress in prison including Republican Duke Cunningham of California.
Rep. Duke Cunningham (November 2006): The truth is I broke the law, conceal my conduct and disgraced my office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, most importantly the trust of my friends and family.
By 2008, earmarks had earned such a bad name, President Bush announced a push to dial them back.
President George W. Bush (January 2008): The people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks, special interest projects often snuck in at the last minute without discussion or debate.
After Republicans won majority control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they banned earmarks.
Speaker John Boehner (June 2011): The House has made it clear in our rules there will be no earmarks.
And President Obama announced he’d veto any bill that contained them.
President Obama (January 2011): The American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects.
But after all of that, earmarks were quietly resurrected from the dead last year by Democrats who now hold a majority in Congress.
Congressman Henry Cuellar is a top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls all those earmarks.
Sharyl: No doubt, there were no doubt, there were abuses in the past.
Rep. Henry Cuellar: Oh, without a doubt. When you have the, a Bridge to Nowhere, when you get a Republican member that gets indicted for getting campaign contributions for helping a private company, of course there were abuses.
Democrats are trying to distance earmarks from their sordid reputation, giving them a new name— Community Project Funding Requests.
They have to be posted online and can no longer be given to private companies. Members of Congress must provide evidence their community supports the earmarks and certify that nobody in their family is getting a financial benefit. In the first round of earmarks last spring since the big comeback: 220 House Democrats put in for 2,338 earmarks totaling about $4.6 billion.
104 Republicans requested 971 earmarks adding up to about the same amount [$4.7 billion].
Cuellar says the biggest argument in support of earmarks is: it gives the peoples’ representatives a hand in spending a chunk of money that’s getting spent anyway.
Cuellar: My position is would you rather have a faceless bureaucrat in DC make a decision what Tilden, Texas, or Zapata, Texas, one of my local communities get? I think I know my community better.
As it happens, some Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham are on the same page as Democrats.
Senator Lindsey Graham: Why would any Republican want to let the Biden administration spend every penny? So what it does, it brings a balance that we've lost. We've given way too much power to the executive branch in terms of how to manage all our money. And Congress needs to get back in the game with a congressionally directed spending
But we found the GOP very much split on the question of earmarks: virtue or vice. Republican Senator Ron Johnson.
Senator Ron Johnson: I understand the rationale to having, without some process for Congress to say where things should be sent or spent, give all that power to the administration, but it's just an addictive drug that has just driven out of control spending and just corruption. So it's something that Republicans should reject.
Rep. Scott Perry: We might as well just say that the swamp won.
Republican Scott Perry says one real reason party leaders get addicted to earmarks to use them as rewards for members who vote the right way, or punishment for those who don’t.
Perry: Well, the sort of thing that happens is: We're close on a vote that is problematic and we just don't have the votes. Somebody from leadership, or somebody from an important committee that you sit on, might come to you and say, "Now, see here. We really need your vote on this, and it'd be a shame if this earmark that you need for the highway in your district that you're out there advocating for, and your constituents know that, it’d be a shame if that earmark didn't come through. You decide what you want to do, but that would just be a shame if that happened.”
Sharyl: Because the earmarks are ultimately controlled by your party's leadership?
Perry: By leadership. All leadership. It’s going to be your party that comes to you and says, "Boy, you sure would like that committee assignment. Wouldn't you? Well, we would like this, and we could help out if your earmark went through. If you voted this way.” And to say that and to think, and to believe, and to hope that it doesn't happen here, is really admirable, but it's not realistic.
Today, for better or for worse, we’re in prime earmarking season, with special interests now lobbying to get their projects on the list for Congress’s next round of budgeting.
Cuellar: Everything we're supposed to be do, there'll be audits later. So it's got a lot more safeguards than we've seen in the past.
And while the Bridge to Nowhere may seem like water under the bridge, it’s gone but not forgotten.
Sharyl (on-camera): Congress never passed the 2021 budget due to spending disputes. In the coming days, they’re expected to finalize something called an omnibus bill, which will be all 12 appropriations bills rolled up into a single package all the better to snuggle in earmarks without a lot of scrutiny.