Last week, President Donald Trump floated the idea of bringing back earmarks to Congress. These are the appropriations made by Congress for specific projects, usually inserted into spending legislation by the Appropriations Committee at the behest of a specific member.
The basic argument in favor of earmarks is theoretically sound. The thinking goes that members of Congress are unable to work together on behalf of the public interest, so some sort of private incentive has to be provided.
Political theorists have recognized this problem for centuries. David Hume, for instance, thought it was good that the British Crown could ply members of Parliament with patronage as a way to maintain the constitutional balance of the British system. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton, drawing on Hume’s argument, disdained a full-scale prohibition against members of Congress occupying executive offices:
Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. . . . Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest; and it will ever be the duty of a wise government to avail itself of those passions, in order to make them subservient to the public good — for these ever induce us to action. Perhaps a few men in a state, may, from patriotic motives, or to display their talents, or to reap the advantage of public applause, step forward; but if we adopt the clause we destroy the motive. . . . We must in some degree, submit to the inconvenience.
So it goes with earmarks. We must in some degree submit to the inconvenience, as Hamilton might say.
Let’s stipulate the Hamiltonian argument that individual passions need to be corralled for the public interest. There are still several, related problems with earmarks in practice.
The first is a matter of efficiency. Yes, it is true that earmarks are a tool to induce recalcitrant members to support a necessary measure. However, once members realize that their votes can be traded for earmarks, they will start to hold back their support — resulting in a dramatic increase in requests for earmarks. This is a major reason why earmark usage increased rapidly over the course of the 1990s and into the early 2000s: The word was out that votes could be sold. Relatedly, members expect that the subcommittee chairmen of the Appropriations Committee will deny at least some earmarks, so they compensate by making more requests than are actually needed.
Second, there is the problem of wasted time. The legislative calendar is already short, and legislative staff already spread way too thin. The annual deluge of earmarks distracts Congress even more from attending to its weightier duties.
Third, there is the problem of corruption. Earmarks are very difficult to keep track of, as there can be thousands of them that occur outside the typical legislative process. This makes it easy for members of Congress to insert spending that helps their donors or even themselves. Moreover, it is almost impossible to root out corruption like this through legal channels — as the recent cases against Bob McDonnell and Robert Menendez have illustrated. Members almost always can mask their pay-to-play endeavors behind claims that they are acting for the public good. It is therefore prudent to deny them the opportunity in the first place.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, earmarks worsen the tendency for congressional irresponsibility, which they are otherwise intended to ameliorate. The institutional challenge of Congress is that it is a body of members representing 535 local constituencies that is somehow supposed to legislate for the national interest. It is all too easy for members to put parochial concerns over the public good. Earmarks are, in theory, a way around this — but, by distributing spending according to members’ political interests, they actually enhance parochialism, and a very old form of it at that.
Congressional spending on public works dates back to the early 19th century, and the great challenge has long been that Congress is able to spend money, but unable to plan how it spends it very well. So while earmarks may make it easy to pass some legislation, they otherwise undermine an already faltering Congress’s ability to plan its spending on public works.
The great challenge has long been that Congress is able to spend money, but unable to plan how it spends it very well.
In sum, earmarks are a bad solution to the Humean problem that Hamilton noted at the Constitutional Convention. But this does not mean that no solution is necessary. We can debate alternatives, but my strong preference is for stronger party organizations within the legislature. I think power needs to be centralized more tightly among the party leaders, who should have multiple means at their disposal of rewarding or rebuking members for their failure to cooperate. I also think the party should have more say over nominations for Congress, so that they can swap out uncooperative members for candidates who will participate in the party effort.
Put another way, the problem of congressional irresponsibility can be solved with carrots or sticks. Earmarks are a type of carrot. I think we should apply the stick.
— Jay Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.