For the past several Congresses, few practices have been so universally reviled as earmarks. Running for office eight years ago, the GOP made special projects and pork barrel spending a focus of their ire, and during his 2011 State of the Union address, then-President Barack Obama promised to veto any bill to cross his desk with earmarks attached. Since 2011, the ban has not been lifted and politics has only gotten more contentious. Which makes it an odd moment for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R, Wis.) and President Donald Trump to float the idea of reversing the earmark ban. Could bringing back earmarks make Congress more effective? A panel discussion of constitutional scholars hosted by the American Enterprise Institute was hesitant to make promises, but wondered if the idea wasn’t still worth trying.
“What do we have to lose? The current congressional process is broken,” said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
For several sessions now, Congress has been marked by heating wranglings over policy, often leading to deadlocked votes, last minute negotiations, and the perpetual threat of a government shutdown over issues like the debt ceiling and the federal budget. Proponents of bringing back earmarks say that the idea is not to buy votes, but to give members cover for making difficult votes in favor of the national, rather than local, interest.
“Earmarks were never drivers of federal spending overall, or of the federal deficit,” explained Frances Lee, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Instead, these projects allowed members to demonstrate to their district that they are working hard in Washington and also meant that more members had a stake in a bill’s passage.
Although the Tea Party attacked earmarks as paragons of government waste, they never amounted to more than a minuscule portion of government spending. When earmarks were first tallied in 1992, they amounted to $2.7 billion of federal spending. Five years later, the number had reached $14.7 billion and by 2006, 14,000 earmarks had added $29 billion in spending.
Given the size of the federal government, such projects are barely a rounding error. This is a small price to pay to move Congress away from brinkmanship. In absence of earmarks, Lee says, politicians are driven to focus more on political decisions and posturing.
“In an ideal form, an earmark would be a benefit to a member of Congress for dealing with collective action for the good of the nation,” said Jay Cost, a political scientist and writer who has studied the American founding closely. According to Cost, this sort of earmark plays a useful role in politics by encouraging difficult decisions by giving members something to sweeten the pot. Pretending that politics is not a series of give and takes is naive.
“As long as there has been this sort of doe eyed ideal that members of congress act completely selflessly there has been also a more hard-bitten acknowledgement that that’s not how things work,” he continued.
Grumet agrees, pointing out that most human relationships involve some sort of exchange. Earmark spending was a low-cost way to build camaraderie, something he likened to office snacks. Relatively cheap in the grand scope of things, they are nevertheless some of the first things placed on the chopping block.
“Every authentic human relationship is transactional,” said Grumet. “The idea that members of Congress should somehow be different is this quaint notion that has no bearing on reality.”
Even so, the ideal earmark is not the same thing as earmarks in practice. At heart, earmarks are a process of distribution, ensuring that different areas of the country or interest groups get their own piece of the government benefit pie. The concern is that this small level corruption could balloon, creating interest groups that band together, rather than cancel each other out.
“As a general principle, the politics of distribution lend itself to big corruption generally. This isn’t a hypothetical concern; it happened at several times over the course of the 19th century,” cautioned Cost.
Allowing earmarks is a de facto acceptance of inefficiency in the legislative system, with a specific bias towards members in leadership positions. Even though the programs were rarely a large portion of government spending, the idea of bringing back this sort of waste is still a hard pill to swallow.
Ironically, earmarks may not be as effective today as they were in the Obama administration. In the present Congress, where the GOP holds slim majorities and strong partisan opposition has left individual members unlikely to cross the aisle, internal party splits have greater weight. Right now, the Republican Party includes the Freedom Caucus, a group of members who claims it “can’t be bought.”
If this group of members comes to hold the balance of power by breaking with Republicans, earmarks would have minimal efficacy. The question is, does either party even want to try?