Never let it be said that liberals have a monopoly on politically correct nomenclature. After Donald Trump raised the question of revisiting the ban on “earmarks” — the formerly polite reference to pork-barrel line items that favor home districts and states — some on Capitol Hill wagged a finger over the term, as The Hill reported last night:
Momentum is building in Congress to revive the use of earmarks after President Trump endorsed the idea on Tuesday.
But don’t call them earmarks: lawmakers say they’re in favor of “congressionally directed spending.”
That’s a mouthful, but even “earmark” is a bit too friendly for a process that previous Congresses had thoroughly corrupted. Technically it’s accurate, but then again, so too is “earmarks.” Pork-barrel spending is more of a slang that worked well enough to pass into common usage, probably because it captures more of the flavor of its purpose: to lard up a district so as to make incumbents difficult to oppose.
Congress has the power of the purse, and earmark advocates argue that it’s more constitutionally legitimate for Congress to mandate targets of appropriated spending than to allow executive-branch agencies to make those decisions. However, Congress still has oversight over those agencies (which is why they have regulatory and spending authority) and can exert influence over spending choices. What they usually can’t normally do is specifically and explicitly direct that spending to their own district.
Trump raised the question because he sees the budget dysfunction in Washington as a problem to be solved with pragmatism over principle. What’s a little corruption among friends if it gets stuff done? And in practical terms, the amounts of money involved were fairly miniscule when seen as part of the overall spending by the federal government.
But that was the problem that pork-barrel spending exacerbated. Earmarks gave personal incentives for representatives and senators to vote for bloated spending bills rather than demand budget discipline. Legendary porkers like John Murtha and Charles Rangel in the House and Robert Byrd in the Senate used that money to build monuments to themselves, both literally and politically. Personal corruption may have been relatively minor to the bloat in the budgets, but (a) they enabled the bloat and (b) they created super-incumbencies that basically eradicated any accountability from voters, and even from leadership.
That’s why it’s disappointing to see conservatives suddenly finding a strange new respect for pork-barrel spending:
“I don’t know that I’m opposed to it,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. “We’re spending more money than ever and it’s still going out, but it doesn’t seem to come to my district.”
If earmarks were restored, “I can be more of a spokesman for the people in Tennessee who need it,” DesJarlais continued. “There is an overpass in Rutherford County that we need to get funding for. We’ve got things up in Nashville, the Percy Priest Reservoir … so yeah, I would like to have a better voice.” …
“I think one way to drain the swamp is to return power to the elected representatives of the people and to not have decisions made by bureaucrats in windowless cubicles with, you know, green shades on their reading glasses,” said freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
Perhaps they should listen to a colleague who was around in the bad old days. Walter Jones (R-NC) is aghast at the sudden reappraisal:
“It is astonishing to me that this is even being discussed. I saw with my own eyes the corruption and fiscal irresponsibility wrought by earmarks,” said Jones, who has served in the House since 1995. “Members of Congress went to jail because of earmarks. Deficits ballooned because of earmarks.”
Dave Brat (R-VA) wonders why his colleagues have not yet caught on to voter mistrust not just of federal agencies but also of Congress. One does not drain the swamp by pumping more water into it, Brat tells Philip Wegmann:
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., put it more bluntly. “We just had a political revolution launched against the swamp [across] the political spectrum all the way from Bernie to Trump voters,” Brat told me. “I don’t think any of those folks along that entire spectrum would be in favor of earmarks.”
Restoration of pork-barrel spending is the antithesis of reform. And it won’t even solve the problem at hand in the budget battles. Those standoffs arise from maximalist politicking, where the word “compromise” becomes a dirty word even in appropriations, and where everyone demands a zero-sum game. We should not have to bribe elected officials to do their jobs, nor should we tolerate empire-building at the expense of accountability just to get a budget passed. Let’s hope Trump was just spitballing, and that leaders in Congress don’t take that suggestion seriously.