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Expanding Earmarks Again Will Not Solve Congress’s Dysfunction

Proponents argue earmarks help Congress get legislation passed, and fall within the congressional power of the purse. Both arguments are false.


John Boehner became speaker of the House in 2011, after the Republican Party picked up 63 seats as part of a popular reaction against President Obama’s health care law. One of Boehner’s first acts was to lead a successful effort to ban earmarks, pork-barrel projects funded at the request of individual members of Congress. The classic example was the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” a $320 million federal project for a bridge bigger than the Golden Gate between two tiny Alaskan towns.

Earmark proponents, most of them on the Appropriations Committee, whose members have lost power as a result of the earmark ban, have been hard at work to bring earmarking back. They’ve deployed two main arguments: earmarks help Congress get legislation passed, and earmarks are part of the Article I congressional power of the purse. Both are false.

If I thought for a second that earmarks would help Congress tackle big-ticket American problems I’d support them. But the obstacle between entitlement reform, regulatory reform, transportation spending, and regular yearly funding bills isn’t earmarks. It’s political polarization. The parties have gone from regional parties to ideological ones, and as a result, Democrats are more liberal now, and Republicans are more conservative.

Anyone who tells you Congress will work better if we bring back earmarks has to plausibly explain how earmarks are going to get the requisite 9 Democratic votes in the U.S. Senate to overcome a filibuster. The House has passed a yearlong government funding bill, a bill to repeal most of Obamacare, and a bill to repeal Dodd-Frank. None of these efforts required earmarks. The Senate on the other hand can’t pass anything unless all the Republicans agree to live up to campaign promises, they get an additional 9 Democrats onboard, or they get rid of the filibuster. None of these scenarios is plausible, and I haven’t heard one good explanation for why restoring earmarks would make them so.

Congress is also much more transparent than it ever has been, making it much more difficult for members to “sell” their votes without such bargains becoming public knowledge. (Typing those words makes me a little sick — I have never asked for an earmark, let alone promised my vote for one, but this was once a relatively common practice.) In the age of the internet, when bills are posted online and outside groups are ready to pounce on those who step outside the orthodoxy of their party, trading earmarks for votes just isn’t realistic.

Can you imagine the outcry if a Democrat supported one of President Trump’s priorities in exchange for money for his district or state? If Bernie Sanders or any other Democratic Senator had voted for Obamacare repeal in exchange for a highway in Vermont? That’s just not a realistic scenario in the 21st Century.

As far as the notion that Article I provides Congress with the power to deploy earmarks, this is only superficially true. Within the limits of the Constitution, Congress can spend money on whatever it wants, how it wants to. There’s no rule, for instance, that says we have got to have an appropriations committee, or that we have to divide spending into the “mandatory” and “discretionary” categories that dominate our current debates. There’s no rule that says members couldn’t be awarded, as members of the Transportation Committee were rumored to in times past, a couple-million dollar slush fund for their disbursement on favored infrastructure projects.  The question is whether or not we are comfortable with the Article I authority being used the way it was under earmarks.

I’m a constitutional conservative, but I don’t see how earmarking funds for projects that the Framers of the Constitution could never have envisioned — teapot museums and “public service centers” named after politicians, for instance — is in keeping with the letter of the Constitution.

Strip away the platitudes that have been deployed in the service of earmarks, and you’ve really got one thing: geographic avarice. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in The Atlantic in 2016, “For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district.” That outlook may have been fine when the debt hadn’t hit $20 trillion dollars, when America wasn’t embroiled in a 19-year war, when the foreign-born population of the United States wasn’t at an absolute and relative all-time-high. That is not the case today.

We have national problems that are going to require public-spirited men and women to forget their local interests and forge ahead with national solutions. The day of the parochially-oriented member of Congress has come and gone. Representatives and voters should not be fooled by the misleading arguments of those who would try to bring earmarks back.