A decade ago, one of the first things Republicans did after taking back the House of Representatives was get rid of earmarks. For those of you who don’t recall, “earmark” is the term of art for when members of Congress bring home the bacon to their district. The GOP was in a Tea Party-ish mood back then, and getting rid of “bridges to nowhere,” etc., was all the rage.
At the time, I thought the earmark ban was an encouraging sign of reform. But in recent years, I’ve changed my mind somewhat. Yes, the practice had gotten out of control, and it drove some corrupt practices. But if the issue was runaway spending and debt, getting rid of earmarks was always more symbolic than serious. The main drivers of our national debt have always been entitlements, not road projects or ice skating rinks.
If the price of getting Congress to implement serious entitlement reforms was a gold-plated monorail in every congressional district, it would be well worth it. Besides, who’s to say that a politician in constant contact with his district’s voters and civic leaders won’t have a better understanding of what his or her community needs than some bureaucrat a thousand miles away?
Also, getting rid of earmarks didn’t get rid of spending. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Kevin Kosar documents in a new report, “Restoring the power of the purse: Earmarks and re-empowering legislators to deliver local benefits,” Congress still allocated money for transportation projects, community rec centers, scientific studies, etc. It’s just that the legislative branch gave up a lot of those decisions. Bureaucrats and political appointees in the executive branch got to decide where the goodies went. Getting rid of earmarks made almost no difference at all, and in some cases discretionary spending went up after the moratorium.
The ban not only weakened the congressional power of the purse, it turned legislators into elected lobbyists of the executive branch. The founders wanted Congress to be the executive branch’s boss, not its supplicant. The further subordination of Congress contributed to its crippling polarization and dysfunction. Think of it this way: As prone to abuse as earmarks were, bringing home benefits to your district was a means of justifying your work in Washington in a way that could cut across partisan or ideological lines. (“So-and-so is way too conservative for me, but he did get us that new firehouse.”)
Instead of legislating or overseeing the executive branch, many House members spend their days as de facto pundits, spinning for their team or against the other. And why not? If all the real governing is being done elsewhere, spending your days as a cheerleader or critic on TV is good way to maintain your name ID for the next election.
So, you might think I was relieved to learn that earmarks are coming back. The Democrats brought them back to the House, and the Senate may soon be next. On Wednesday, House Republicans threw in the towel.
I think it’s the right decision in the abstract, but in reality it’s a little sickening.
Having just passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, only a fraction of which deals directly with the pandemic, Democrats are moving on to an infrastructure bill. There’s no price tag yet, but Goldman Sachs estimates a range of $2 trillion to $4 trillion over 10 years. To build support for the effort, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), announced last month that she’d allow earmarks, albeit with a few conditions. Members can’t have a financial interest in them, they can’t ask for earmarks in secret, and they can’t ask for more than 10. (That’s right, 10.)
This put Republicans in a bind. If the money is getting spent anyway, why not have some say in how it’s spent?
“There’s a real concern about the administration directing where money goes,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “This doesn’t add one more dollar [to overall spending]. I think members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden.”
McCarthy’s right. Still, ugh. Republicans banned earmarks because they claimed they contributed to runaway spending and debt. Spending and debt soared under Republicans and Democrats alike. And now, when these problems are the worst they’ve ever been, the GOP wants earmarks back—not as a way to get control of our fiscal problems, but as a way to take more ownership of our fiscal problems.