Politics & Policy

The Earmark Debate Is Back

The 2011 pork ban wasn't perfect, but we should keep it.

Some things never change.

For more than 200 years, earmarks existed as a way for Members of Congress to bring money home to their constituents. Supporters argued that the process allowed a small fraction of the federal budget to avoid the federal bureaucracy and more directly help constituents, as well as encourage Members of Congress to work together to pass legislation. Opponents argued that they encouraged corruption, as Members worked together to help each other spend the nation into oblivion.

Until the mid-1990s, earmarking was popular but used sparingly. From 1996 to 2006, however, the number of earmarks grew from fewer than 300 to over 2,000 per year. A popular backlash mounted, and after the 2010 elections, earmarks were banned in both chambers of Congress. It was hoped that the ban would make Congress less corrupt by — to paraphrase Senator Tom Coburn (R.,-Oklahoma)  – closing the bar tab on Washington’s spendaholics.

Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) and a group of bipartisan Senators and Representatives want to bring earmarks back.

The earmark ban itself did not accomplish all that its backers claimed. While the dollars themselves were no longer at the beck and call of Members of Congress, neither were earmark dollars ever cut from the budget. Furthermore, earmarks were never a large part of the budget, despite the attention they garner — perhaps one-half of one percent of the budget, and just $7.7 billion in the 2009 omnibus bill. Since the ban never eliminated spending, it sent the dollars that used to be earmarked for local projects back to the federal bureaucracy, to be spent at the relative whim of a federal employee in Washington.

And earmark backers rightly say this is a bad thing. Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has long supported earmarks, claiming it gives Members of Congress — who know their districts best — control over how some of the budget helps their constituents. But given the corrupt nature of politicians, can any citizen trust that the money is being spent in the best way possible, and not simply for preferred projects that help this friend of a member, or that ally? Who is to say a bureaucrat is any more qualified than a politician when it comes to earmarks?

Furthermore, why do we want members of Congress working closely together, as they did in the past? It was this kind of bipartisanship that brought us the soon-to-be bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid, a bloated Department of Defense, and the evils of baseline budgeting.

While both parties want to grow spending dramatically, they are often at least at partial loggerheads on where it should grow. Republicans are generally in favor of slowing the growth of social programs, and a few are in favor of real reforms. But most want the Department of Defense to be untouched by fiscal discipline.

Likewise, Democrats love growing social programs but want the Defense Department to bear the brunt of fiscal reforms. But with earmarks, both parties were able to convince their political opposition to get on board, since constituents mostly care what happens to them, not what happens to people they don’t know in other states.

While our political system is still broken, without earmarks Members of Congress are less able to bribe their colleagues to join them in passing legislation for its own sake. The system still needs to be uprooted and revamped — unaffordable spending is still a bipartisan affair — but at least we’re seeing more transparency and acrimony. Furthermore, some politicians are still able to hold to some level of principle, instead of jumping ship on campaign promises for an earmark.

Supporters of earmarks cite the success stories — airports, light transportation rails, and educational programs — but they ignore the boondoggles, such as the Bridge to Nowhere, an earmark that put more than $250 million federal tax dollars toward a bridge in Alaska that would have served a few dozen residents of a small town. And in 2008, Coburn highlighted how without earmarks Congress’ support for two educational programs plummeted, showing how the programs seemed to be more a vehicle for earmarks than worthwhile educational programs (at least, in the eyes of most legislators). Coburn also embarrassed Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 2007 when he proposed that $900,000 be used to help people with disabilities instead of for a Lyndon Baines Johnson museum.

Which brings up another point: earmarks were not parsed out based upon population, or taxes paid, or other processes of proper proportionality. They went to Members who were the best negotiators, were on the right committee, had the right influence, were reluctant to back legislation, and/or might need the help in getting re-elected.

So why should earmarks come back? The basic argument is that they grease the wheels of the political process, especially at a time when not much is getting done in Congress.

But why should politicians have to be bought in order to do the work of the country they allegedly serve? And “getting stuff done” is Beltway-speak for “passing more laws,” which is exactly the opposite of what this nation needs.

As noted in a Forbes op-ed in 2012, “Let’s face it—at a point, almost any elected official’s objection to a bill or judicial appointment will crumble when offered enough goodies to ensure endless re-election to office because the elected official is bringing home the bacon to the voters who hold his or her fate in their collective hands.” The op-ed also noted that “earmarking quickly devolved into a system of vote-buying where a Member of Congress, reluctant to cast a vote for a particular piece of legislation, could be ‘persuaded’ to do so if enough pork was piled onto that Member’s plate in the effort to satisfy an important constituency at home.”

So, no, the earmark ban isn’t perfect, but here it should stay, especially since earmarks are one of the best ways for incumbents to boast about alleged accomplishments when they run for re-election. This gives incumbents an enormous advantage over their opponents, many of whom run campaigns that start at a disadvantage.

– Dustin Siggins is the D.C. Correspondent for LifeSiteNews, a former blogger with Tea Party Patriots, and co-author of the forthcoming book Bankrupt Legacy: The Future of the Debt-Paying Generation.


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