“Earmarks” were an inside-the-Beltway term only a few months ago, but suddenly getting rid of them has become an unlikely populist passion. The congressional practice of specifying which projects should receive funding is being blamed for creating opportunities for corruption and for increasing federal spending. One conservative publication has said that earmarks (also called “pork”) should be “outlawed entirely.” Another says that earmarks are at the heart of the Abramoff scandal.
But conservatives are almost certainly overestimating how much good “earmark reform” can do. In some cases, the reforms may even be counterproductive.
Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation is a serious budget hawk who favors a moratorium, followed by a ban, on earmarks. Precisely because he’s serious, however, he concedes that “Congress could get rid of every pork project tomorrow and it would not cut federal spending directly.”
Anti-earmark reformers have discussed putting each and every project in a spending bill up for a vote. In most cases, however, if a project were to get voted down, the money it would have cost wouldn’t be subtracted from the bill. Rather, the disbursement of the money would be controlled by someone other than Congress. By whom depends on the program in question, but often it will be by an executive-branch official or governor.
Critics of Alaska’s “bridges to nowhere” have pointed out that it makes no sense for the Congress to fund such dubious projects at the expense of, say, fixing the levees in the Gulf coast. But merely eliminating the earmarks for those bridges didn’t solve that problem. Most federal highway funding is allotted to each state according to a complicated formula. Getting rid of the earmarks didn’t reduce federal spending, or even reduce Alaska’s allotment.
Congress could scrap the formula, turn over all the highway money to the executive branch, and tell it to direct the funds wherever the national need was greatest. Perhaps the resulting distribution of funds would be less politicized, and the process by which they were distributed would be less corrupt. Perhaps. But any gains would have to be set against a troubling reduction of congressional authority over federal spending.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the chairman of the House appropriations committee, points out that funding for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) came from a congressional earmark. The Pentagon hadn’t wanted to fund it. Just because Lewis’s point is self-serving doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Outlawing earmarks would require Congress to cede much of its power of the purse.
Are there reforms short of outlawing earmarks that could be worthwhile? Sure. Requiring congressmen to disclose which projects they are responsible for funding is one. But don’t expect this reform to save a lot of money. Most earmarked projects aren’t foisted on voters by congressmen and their campaign contributors. They’re attempts by congressmen to win favor from the voters, who like the pork spending. Disclosure doesn’t have to be required in the vast majority of cases because congressmen are happy to brag about their role in getting pork for their districts. Perhaps this relationship between a congressman and his district is corrupt in a deeper sense than criminal bribery; but it’s hard to see how any earmark reform could change it at an acceptable cost.
Disclosure at the wrong stage could even be harmful. Rep. Lewis, in responding to earmark critics, has suggested that congressmen’s “request letters” should be made public. When those are considered behind closed doors, a congressman can decide which projects in his district are the most important to fund. If the requests are public, congressmen will face pressure to make many more requests. They won’t want to tell anyone in their district that they didn’t go to bat for them. Again: Earmarks are driven by voters, not lobbyists.
Allowing more time for congressmen to look over the earmarks in a spending bill before voting on it is another nice-sounding idea. In general, however, the reason some earmarks make their way into a bill at the last minute is not that the projects can’t survive exposure; it’s because legislative deals get cut at the last minute. Add a waiting period if you like, but then don’t complain when the budget-writers miss their deadlines again.
Anyone who wants to cut spending should be after a reform of the whole budget. A reform limited to earmarks might not save any money.
Riedl understands the limits of earmark reform but nevertheless favors it. He makes two arguments. First, he notes that pork for a congressman’s district often buys that congressman’s vote for a high-spending bill. In that way, pork promotes big government. That’s true; but it’s also true that pork can help win votes for a smaller-government bill. The Caribbean free trade bill probably wouldn’t have passed without some pork promises. What’s probably most accurate to say is that pork strengthens incumbents, and the majority party, whatever those incumbents and that majority party wants.
Second, Riedl thinks that an addiction to pork changes what those incumbents want. “Pork changes your entire approach to your job.” He estimates that adjusting for inflation, federal spending has gone up 29 percent since 1995 while federal spending on earmarks has gone up 164 percent. (They’re still, by his estimate, less than two percent of the budget.) “The fact that pork has exploded at the same time that federal spending has exploded is not a coincidence. It reflects a mindset.” He wants congressmen who are interested in getting reelected by promoting conservative reforms, not by bringing pork home.
I sympathize with that goal. But seeking it through earmark reform seems like wishful thinking. The Republican majority turned to pork in a big way in the late 1990s, when it concluded, rationally, that a conservative reform agenda was unlikely to provide a sufficient basis for a lasting Republican majority. The more politically successful a conservative domestic agenda is, the less need of pork congressmen will have. But earmark reform will do very little to bring about that happy result.
–Ramesh Ponnuru, an NR senior editor is at work on a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.