Earmarks–with Pork Barrel Spending–Are Coming Back!

Earmarks–with Pork Barrel Spending–Are Coming Back! November 23, 2020

One benefit of having an old-school Democratic politician in the White House:  Earmarks–the practice of letting Congressmen tack on spending measures for pet projects in their districts–will be coming back!

That means the return of another practice described with a colorful metaphor:  pork barrel politics!  The excessive spending of taxpayer money to benefit states and localities so that politicians can claim credit for “bringing home the bacon”!

House Majority leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) does not use those words–he calls earmarks ““congressionally directed spending,” and the ability to “ask for congressional initiatives for their districts and their states.”   But it’s the same difference, a return to a long-time legislative practice.  Hoyer says that all three of the candidates for Chair of the House Appropriations Committee are on board with the idea, so it’s likely to be implemented by the newly-elected Congress.

A complication may be that the Senate, which is likely to remain Republican-controlled, shows no intention of repealing their ban on earmarks, which both houses put into place in 2011.  The Senate could strip earmarks out of bills during the reconciliation process.  But Hoyer is not worried. Addressing that issue, he said,

“I don’t expect it to be a partisan effort. Now that doesn’t mean that everybody does participate,” he said. “But I know there are a lot of Republicans on our side and a lot of Republicans on the Senate side who want to . . . have the ability to invest in their states.”

Now, as a small-government cheapskate, I decry this development.  And yet, in the world of unintended consequences, it is not completely a bad thing.

Earmarks have always been the currency of legislative deals.  “If you vote for my bill, we can tack on funding for that new post office you have been trying to get in your home town.”  Even members of the other party could be wooed to support a bill, if it included goodies for the voters back home that they could take credit for getting.  “Vote for this bill,” the Majority Leader might say to a member of the minority, “and we’ll put an army base in your state, right where the unemployment rate is the highest.”

This process, corrupt as it might seem, had the effect of encouraging bipartisanship, compromise, and coalition-building.  Right now, Congress has become impotent and paralyzed.  There is little incentive for any legislator to “cross the aisle” to vote for a bill advocated by the other party.

Also, local constituencies, along with their local representatives, are disempowered. The leadership of both parties determines what laws get proposed and what money can be spent, and the “whips” keep everybody in line.  Individual Congressmen have little clout by themselves, so they can only look for success by following the top-down partisan leadership structure.  If the people in their district need that post office or military base, there is not much that they can do about it.  But with earmarks, the individual Congressman representing a small rural district gets courted by colleagues from both parties.  And the constituents can benefit from that.

Yes, money spent on the national level from national revenues should go for nation-wide purposes, not for narrow interests that benefit only a few.  I’m not denying that principle.

But, on a practical level, such financial incentives, favors to constituents, and political horse-trading have been part of how laws get made from the earliest days of our republic.  This is why the maxim arose: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”  But just as those sausages, however made, can be really tasty, the laws that result from this unsavory process can be sound, have broad support, and be beneficial to ordinary citizens.

Especially now, when the Executive branch has acquired so much power, to the point of ruling by executive order and imposing bureaucratic regulations as a substitute for laws passed by the Constitutional process, the Legislative Branch needs to assert itself and regain its power and its effectiveness.  Bringing back earmarks might help that happen and, if so, might be worth the cost.


Illustration:  Pork Barrel Spending, by Iconathon, public domain, via The Noun Project.

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