It’s been long enough since we finally ended the days of pork-barrel spending that many of us have almost forgotten about it. Of course, that’s the problem with forgetting your history. You wind up being doomed to repeat it. The voices calling for a return of earmarks to “make Washington functional again” seem to be growing louder, and Diana Evans, in an article republished at Government Executive, joins in the chorus this week. She does, however, offer a few notes of caution as well.
Because the congressional budgeting process has become so dysfunctional, many suggest that a return to earmarks, popularly known as “pork-barrel spending,” would grease the wheels for appropriations bills. An earmark is money provided for an individual project in an elected official’s district, as a way of encouraging that official’s vote for a spending bill.
A return to earmarking – for projects ranging from new bridges to museum funding to renewable energy research, tailored for individual members’ districts – would require lifting a 2011 moratorium imposed on the practice.
I have studied the effect of pork-barrel spending on passing spending bills. Although earmarks are worth reconsidering as a way of greasing the legislative wheels, I would argue that the case for them is mixed.
Evans employs the most common phrase we tend to see when talking about the possible return of earmarks… greasing the wheels. That’s more than appropriate on a couple of levels, including the fact that it’s hauntingly similar to another old phrase, greasing their palms. (That’s a somewhat archaic reference to bribery.)
I’ll be the first to admit that earmarks were, back in their heyday, effective when it came to getting legislation passed. If that’s your only priority and the single measure of whether not Congress is “functional” then it’s hard to argue with the premise. Offering one of the members a nice, fat check to build a new bridge back home or kick-start some jobs program is a way to make them more popular when their next election rolls around and get them to sign on for something they might have otherwise opposed.
But is that really success? Getting a massive spending bill to the President’s desk which wouldn’t have made it through if you weren’t bribing some of the members doesn’t exactly sound like the noblest of intentions. And don’t the people who elected those members count on them to vote their conscience and do what’s right rather than holding their nose and voting against the interests of their constituents in exchange for some piece of pork?
One other problem brought up by Evans in her article is the possibility that the political world has simply changed too much over the past two decades and earmarks may not be able to work the “magic” they used to deliver anyway. National politics has always been partisan in nature, but now it’s gone beyond hyperpartisan. And there are so many watchdogs out there, particularly in the new media world, that no dodgy vote can be counted on to remain a back page news item which is quickly forgotten. Every vote is scrutinized and recorded to be used later as opposition research if it has any juice. Also, with nearly every vote coming down to party lines in a closely divided Senate, the pressure on each member to conform to the desires of the national party is huge. There may not be enough pork in the barrel to change very many votes at all.
It took ages to slay the pork-barrel monster. Let’s not ressurect that zombie just in the name of making Congress “functional” again. If you want a functional Congress, elect better people.