The return of earmarks?

Our RedState colleague Erick Erickson has some disturbing possible tidings for us in the midst of the midterm celebrations. A beast that we thought was long since slain and buried may be rising once again from the grave. Earmarks may be making a comeback.

Sources in both the House and Senate are expressing grave concern to me that Republicans are about to legalize bribery. If you will recall, several years ago after a host of arrests of members of Congress, indictments, and bridges to nowhere, public outrage caused Congress to ban earmarks.

The earmarks were serving as bribery. Politicians would get earmarks sent to state and local public institutions and congressional leaders would grant and withhold earmarks as bribes to get congressmen to vote particular ways.

Senate Republicans are dragging their feet and there are, according to Senate sources, strong signals the GOP intends to end the Senate earmarks ban. Just yesterday, Senate Republicans refused to approve the earmarks ban.

This isn’t the first time this idea has come up this year and it seems to be a bipartisan disease. There have been numerous opinion pieces making the rounds all summer and into the final weeks of the election, such as this one, which sing the praises of the corrupt and broken earmark system as a path to “ending gridlock” and fixing our crumbling infrastructure.

But while banning earmarks may not have eliminated a significant chunk of infrastructure funding, it did eliminate the main reason congressmen were interested in infrastructure in the first place. For all their problems, earmarks were a genius bit of legislative procedure, giving politicians a personal stake in passing broadly beneficial infrastructure authorization.

The 2005 highway act – by some measures, the last truly comprehensive transportation bill to pass Congress – was approved by the House 417 to 9 and by the Senate 89 to 11. With billions of dollars in more than 5,000 earmarks, the law promised enough ribbon-cuttings to please every lawmaker involved.

It’s more than a little ironic that this argument, purportedly showing why having earmarks was such a good thing, is actually a fairly good synapses of why they were so awful to begin with. It runs parallel to the gridlock argument, which states that things are better when Congress is doing something … anything … to show Americans that we can get things done, even if the things in question are truly awful.

The specifics of this argument are that nothing gets done because recalcitrant members refuse to go along with the program established by the leadership unless there is a massive set of carrots and sticks involved. As long as taxpayer slush fund money is available to be handed out (and most importantly, controlled by senior members on key committees, appointed by the leadership) to the states, the members will have to bow to the will of a few senior folks or risk having the money go elsewhere. That system “worked” perfectly for a long time, if you can call that working.

Then we got rid of it. It was widely hailed as a victory for responsible budget management. So why are we thinking about bringing it back?