Bring Back Earmarks

June 20, 2021

by Steve Stofka

For the past decade gridlock in the Congress has often led the news, each side of the political aisle holding those in the other party responsible for the lack of bipartisanship. This week the two parties came together to make Juneteenth a holiday. In the House, a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to vote on a bill which would rein in the oligopoly reach of some tech giants like Google and Amazon. The public has become so accustomed to entrenched party positions that such collaborations grab headlines. How can the two parties reintroduce more bipartisanship? Reengage a practice that was formally but not actually discontinued a decade ago – earmarks for House and Senate members. Two powerful Democrats in the House and Senate have pledged to formally readopt the practice in 2022. House Republicans have agreed, but Senate Republicans have not committed to the renewal of earmarks (CAGW, 2021, p. 1).

Earmarks are persuaders, spending items inserted in a bill to gain crucial votes in the House or Senate. It helps incumbent representatives who compromise on  legislation resist a primary challenge from the more extreme wings of their party. With the gain of a spending earmark for their district, an incumbent appears as a smart political trader, not an unprincipled compromiser. For most of American history, earmarks were the bread and butter of practical politics.

Scandals surrounding earmarks contributed to the Democrats losing the House in the 1994 election. During their 40-year control of the House from 1954-1994, Democrats had used earmarks to hold the disparate elements of their party together. In the early 1990s, an investigation into Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Democrat chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, brought too much attention to the political bargaining that took place in Washington. At the conclusion of the investigation into what was known as the Post Office Scandal, Mr. Rostenkowski was sentenced to almost two years in prison. Holding aloft his Contract with America and promising greater fiscal responsibility, firebrand Republican Newt Gingrich used the scandal to wrest control of the House from the Democrats in the 1994 election.

Despite his rhetoric Mr. Gingrich understood the role of earmarks. Like axle grease they were ugly and messy but reduced friction in the electoral machinery of Congress. They helped members fend off primary challenges, which were becoming more frequent after the Federal Communications Commission ended the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Without the constraint to present balanced opinions, new media outlets gained attention and audience by taking strong positions on the topics of the day. The most successful of these was Rush Limbaugh who launched his show the year after the Fairness Doctrine was ended. People who wanted moderate voices could tune into traditional outlets. Those with strong conservative views  tuned into Limbaugh and other hosts who courted controversial opinions. Mr. Gingrich had played to these extreme elements in his bid to take the House but understood that earmarks were essential tools in governing a political coalition.

When John Boehner became the Republican majority leader in 2005, he pledged to curb the practice of trading earmarks for votes but they continued in the appropriations committees. In the eleven years since Republicans had taken control of the House, earmarks had grown tenfold (Bogie, 2018, p. 3). Two recent scandals involving members of the Republican Party had drawn public attention to the tawdry side of pork barrel politics. Mr. Boehner’s show of principle was calculated to help the Republicans retain their image as fiscal conservatives and continue their control of the House in the 2006 election. The public was tired of Republican missteps and profligate war spending and Democrats regained control of the House in 2007.

Under Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, earmarks fell by half, but the financial bailout and the threat of big government spending under Obamacare sparked a Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take back the House in the 2010 election. Responding to public sentiment, Mr. Boehner announced a formal moratorium on earmarks and for two of the four years of his Speakership there were no earmarks (Bogie, 2018, p. 3). After his retirement in 2015, the earmarks continued. Hoping to bolster their chances in the 2020 elections, Republican Senators formally adopted a resolution against earmarks in 2019. In two crucial elections in Georgia, they lost control of the Senate anyway.

An argument for a reduction in earmarks has been prudent management of the public’s money. Good intentions, bad results. Instead of spending relatively small amounts to bolster an incumbent’s chance of re-election, a reduction in earmarks has contributed to an explosion in the deficit. In addition, the reduction has contributed to the polarization in Congress. The success of primary challengers rests on principle. The longevity of incumbents rests on pork, “bringing home the bacon” to their constituents.

Earmarks help those in the center hold the center. Without earmarks, the center has collapsed. Is it time to hold our noses and admit that a principled stand against earmarks has not stood the test of history? Can Democratic Senator Leahy and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro overcome the bad optics of restoring earmarks? In the front room, politicians espouse grand principles. In the back room the ugly art of bargaining begins. Halos in the front room, horns in the back.  Like cleaning out sewer lines, politics is a dirty job. It’s about time someone unplugged the sewer lines in Congress.  

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Photo by McGill Library on Unsplash

Bogie, J. (n.d.). Earmarks Won’t Fix the Broken Budget and Appropriations Process (Backgrounder, Publication No. 3353). Heritage Foundation. doi:https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/BG3353.pdf

CAGW. (2021, April 14). 2021 congressional Pig Book. Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://www.cagw.org/reporting/pig-book

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