Surprise! Pork Barrel Politics Is Back

At their retreat last week in Philadelphia House Democrats called on Americans to make shared sacrifices to protect democracy. Congress itself, however, got a waiver. After an 11-year moratorium, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to restart what disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called the “earmark favor factory.” Pork barrel politics is back. 

The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill President Biden signed into law includes more than 5,000 pork projects worth $9.7 billion. That’s less than the 2006 peak, when Congress funded nearly 16,000 earmarks, but close to the early 2000s levels when Abramoff was in his prime. Projects include critical national priorities like $1.6 million for the “equitable growth of shellfish aquaculture” in Rhode Island, $800,000 for “artist lofts” in California, and $1.5 million for improvements at St. George Theater in New York.

In 2011, my former boss, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), and other reformers like Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) helped impose the ban after fighting the practice since the 1990s.  

We argued earmarks were a “gateway drug” not just to overspending but to “earmarxism”—the creeping normalization of top-down, command-and-control authoritarianism in American politics. A few billion dollars in a bill appropriating more than $1 trillion might not seem like much, but earmarks shift the balance of power from taxpayers, free people, and free enterprise to politicians and special interests, and made critically needed reforms in other areas like entitlements more difficult to achieve. We hoped the ban would be just the first stop in an incremental island-hopping strategy to restore constitutional limits on federal power. 

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