In Praise of Earmarks


Pork, anyone?

This is going to sound weird but I’m finding myself missing former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay lately. Not his politics, naturally. Or his near-criminal fundraising methods. No, what I miss was his ability to get things done. His nickname was The Hammer and people say he controlled his GOP conference by sheer meanness. Really though? It was all about money. Earmarks, to be exact.

Earmarks are little bundles of money for special projects in specific states or districts. They used to be a regular part of Congressional spending bills; Members would ask for money to get something done back home and it would be added to the appropriate spending bill. For example, Congressman Joe Blow might want a new overpass in Smalltown in his district, so he’d make a request to add the funds for the overpass to the Transportation appropriations bill and the money would be set aside for him. Then Congressman Joe Blow would issue press releases singing his own praises for bringing home the bacon for the folks in Smalltown and he’d brag about it during the next election cycle. Meanwhile the Smalltown citizens would have a nice, safe new overpass, built by local workers who were happy to have the jobs and the whole city would see their tax dollars coming back to actually benefit them directly. Win-win, right?

Apparently not. Large swaths of the political elites thought that earmarks were just wasteful pork project. Former Representative and current Senator Jeff Flake used to spend hours of his time standing on the House Floor listing all the earmarks he thought were wastes of tax money. Of course, Jeff Flake is extremely conservative and thinks everything except maybe his own salary are wastes of money but he would pick out the most location-specific examples and make the case that a project that benefits a small town someplace isn’t of benefit to the rest of America.

I’m of a different mindset. I think Members of Congress are sent to Washington to serve the people of their state or district and bringing home money for local programs and projects is an excellent use of their time. I don’t begrudge Smalltown their overpass and I would hope Smalltown wouldn’t begrudge my town federal funding for local environmental concerns or a new wing on a library or any of a zillion possible projects. I’d rather see my tax dollars winding up back in the pockets of folks back home, wherever home may be.

Tom DeLay knew that earmarks were valuable bargaining tools. He held up money for Members’ pet projects as a reward for taking the votes he wanted them to take. What he understood was that fallout from taking an unpopular vote could be mitigated if a Member could send out that press release about getting financing for the overpass. During his tenure as Speaker, he was famous for using earmarks to get his caucus to do what he wanted. Things got done in DC and things got funded back home. It wasn’t a bad system.

But the Flake-like contingent has won the day on earmarks. There were calls for earmark reform from fiscal conservatives as a way of reining in wasteful spending and President Obama put the nail in the coffin of earmarks when he promised to veto any spending bill that contained them in 2011. I remember thinking that was a politically brilliant move. It made Obama look fiscally responsible and forced the Republicans to stick to their promise to ban earmarks when the took the House in 2010. But what really happened was that the loss of earmarks meant the loss of any and all leverage Speaker Boehner has to get votes from his party. He can’t reward them for doing what he wants. He can’t punish them for breaking ranks and doing things like, ya know, refusing to fund the government. Instead of being able to say “Do this and I’ll make sure you go home with a barrel full of pork for voters”, all Boehner can do is appeal to a spirit of compromise and cooperation that is sorely missing from a large contingent of his caucus.

The other negative effect of banning earmarks has been the loss of regular order spending bills. In times past, everyone would vote for appropriations bills because they all had a little something in them. Even people who didn’t like to be seen voting for government spending could be coerced into taking a vote with the promise of a little government spending just for them. Now? They have no reason to vote for regular order appropriations bills. Well, I mean other than the vow to uphold the Constitution that they take. But since the Constitution doesn’t explicitly say “Thou shalt appropriate under regular order”, they can pretend that funding the government isn’t part of their job.

The sad irony of the earmark ban is that it hasn’t reduced spending. Hell, it hasn’t even really reduced pork. According to a Bloomberg Business article, Congressional offices just call federal agencies to ask for funds to go to their projects. Congress has to sneak around behind its own back to get money to take home. There’s no savings and the legislative process has fallen apart for nothing.

I say we bring back earmarks. A little money might get things moving again and bring some sanity to this town. Only instead of pork, let’s call it bacon. Everything is better with bacon.


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