A New Congress, Associations, & Earmarks
Creating public policy is as much a science as an art. It requires creativity, trial and error, finesse, and sometimes bull-headed determination. On January 3rd a refreshed group of artisan/scientists will commence the country’s 117th Congress and a big question is how, in the midst of a pandemic-induced economic plunge, will the new Congress foster non-profits’ ability to help.
The country is days away from its final day of voting. If you believe the polls, outcomes seem positive for Democrats across the board. Should the Democrats meet expectations, the biggest shifts will happen in the Senate where the Republicans hold a slim margin. Should the upper chamber change hands so too would gavels in every committee and subcommittee, not the least of which is Appropriations.
As the pieces fall into place and the 117th Congress begins its work, one critical tool is missing: earmarks. Years ago, in the name of fiscal responsibility, Congress foolishly banned earmarking. Critics believed the practice yielded little return and was controlled by (self-interested) special interests.
However, eliminating earmarks did not save taxpayer dollars. The small amount reserved for earmarks simply shifted from Congress’s control to the administration’s and although there will always be some self-interested bad actors, the vast majority of earmark recipients were mission driven non-profits dedicated to workforce development, improving transportation, bringing broadband to rural communities, crucial research, etc.
Meanwhile, eliminating earmarks also sacrificed a valuable trading tool. One of the reasons legislation is stagnant is because without earmarks there are few, if any, ways to entice intransigent Members to vote for an otherwise pragmatic bill.
A new Congress gives leadership an opportunity to create new operational rules. (US Const. Art. I, Sec. V, Clause 2) They can bring earmarks back, loosen the legislative logjams, and provide valuable resources to trade associations and non-profits.
For example, it is impossible to predict whether the 117th Congress can finally pass a transportation bill, but the process will be easier if Members who dig in their oppositional heels over some obscure provision can be persuaded to vote for the bill in exchange for a new bridge, bike path, or on-ramp.
Small businesses in Iowa who benefit from new highway construction will not take issue if a transportation bill finally passes in exchange for a new emergency room in Georgia.
The earmark ban, however, remains radioactive. No one touches it and consequently, legislation languishes. Now, as the 117th Congress settles into its routine, appointing new chairmen and addressing issues for the country and its legion of non-profits, we can certainly hope that a pragmatism takes root as well – and that non-profits are once again able to benefit their communities.
Aaron Grau is president of Grau & Associates, a boutique association management firm with offices in Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC.