And it won’t cost us a thing, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy assures us, which is both technically true and a non-sequitur. After a decade of ending the earmark process, which became an avenue of corruption and incumbency insurance over the decades, House Republicans voted today to lift the moratorium on the pork process. That leaves Senate Republicans as the only congressional caucus left to hold the line on featherbedding and pork.
House Republicans voted to allow their members to request dedicated-spending projects, known as earmarks, following that same move by Democrats, in a positive sign for President Joe Biden’s hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The House GOP caucus on Wednesday voted by secret ballot to approve earmarks, according to people familiar with the matter. …
“There’s a real concern about the administration directing where money goes; this doesn’t add one more dollar,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, while not specifying how he voted. “Members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden.”
Maintaining the ban would have limited the ability of GOP lawmakers winning inclusion of projects important to their constituencies in the infrastructure bill Congress is now poised to debate. Republicans have divided over the issue, however, with some saying earmarks contribute to excess federal spending, at a time that government debt is soaring.
If McCarthy’s that confident, then why vote in secrecy?
BIG: The House GOP just voted in a secret ballot to reverse their internal ban on earmarks, meaning Republicans will now be able to take advantage of Dems’ new earmarks system.
— Melanie Zanona (@MZanona) March 17, 2021
That’s your first clue that this is nonsense. McCarthy’s technical accuracy involves the actual process of earmarking, which in itself does not add costs to appropriations. Instead, earmarks carve out specific targeted spending from the overall appropriation amount, which in theory allows Congress to keep the executive branch from moving funds around on its own.
In practice, however, it devolved into a spoils system which brought home the bacon to congressional districts in order to protect incumbents from election challenges. Not only did that make those on the Approprations committee powerful in regard to their own districts, but it also made them powerful for the favors they could cut for members who aren’t on those committees.
This is how we got hundreds of buildings named after Robert Byrd in West Virginia, and how John Murtha’s district got an airport that barely got used. It was that kind of corruption that prompted demand for reforms from the Tea Party, which helped force an end to the earmark process.
McCarthy’s claim aside, the other reason for ending earmarks was that they made it impossible to reduce spending in Washington. When members have pork larded up in big spending bills, they tend to vote for them regardless of their value or wisdom. That’s not always the case, but it happened more often than not. The fact that this vote took place right before a massive infrastructure bill will hit the House is a pretty good indication that the change will cost us plenty, both now and in the future.
One argument for reintroducing earmarks that should be considered is that it might make budgeting and other legislation more collaborative. And it might; there’s no doubt that the budget process has broken down over the past decade or more without earmarks, as members of both parties have become less invested in the eventual outcome of a budget. This might be a tool to head off a showdown over the filibuster by allowing for some level of collaboration instead of continuous maximalist politics on both sides of the aisle, although that would really only apply to spending bills. It might have a salutary effect down the road as people work more with each other than conducting performance art on the floors of the two chambers, but performance art pays much better for now in terms of fundraising.
The writing has been on the wall on the earmark moratorium since Democrats took back the House in 2018. Get ready for new Monuments to Me springing up in every congressional district, part of a new comity for which we will pay through the nose.