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Trump and Pelosi Want to Bring Back Earmarks; Republicans Shouldn’t Let Them

Pork barrel politics is back from the dead.
by John Hart
February 15, 2019
Trump and Pelosi Want to Bring Back Earmarks; Republicans Shouldn’t Let Them
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

Pork barrel politics is back.

You might be old enough to remember “earmarks”—the legislative procedure through which Congress was able to direct spending to specific congressional districts. This resulted in such boondoggles as the Bridge to Nowhere or the Montana Sheep Institute. During the 1990s and early 2000s Congress became an “earmark favor factory,” according to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with matters getting so corrupt that members such as Duke Cunningham went to prison for earmark and bribery related scandals.

Congress declared an earmark moratorium in 2010. But now, after nearly a decade, the process that defines swamp politics has found a new champion: President Donald Trump.

Early last year President Trump gave a remarkable, full-throated defense of earmarks. During a bipartisan meeting in the White House, Trump said earmarks could “get this country really rolling again” by restoring comity in Congress.

Congress was listening. Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to restart the favor factory. However, after Democrats re-took the House Nancy Pelosi was more than happy to accept Trump’s offer. Last month, House Democrats passed a rules package that didn’t include an earmark ban, which is now paving the way for the return of earmarks.

In the decade since the moratorium, there’s been a revisionist celebration of earmarks by people who argue that while they can be wasteful and are prone to abuse, in the long run they’re part of good government.

The intellectual defense of pork-barrel politics basically goes: (1) Earmarks have always been with us; (2) Congress’ “power of the purse” grants it the power to earmark; (3) Earmarks create the lubrication that’s often needed to pass good, large-scale legislation; and (4) Earmarks are a check on the power of the unelected bureaucrats in Washington. (In this view, denying elected officials the power to earmark simply devolves the authority to unaccountable administrators.)

These arguments are all superficially compelling, but ultimately bad constitutional theory.

For starters, the orgy of earmarks was a modern aberration, not a pillar of our democracy. President Reagan vetoed a bill in 1987 because it contained 121 earmarks. Reagan quipped, “I haven’t seen this much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.”

The number of earmarks skyrocketed to more than 4,000 in 1994. By 2006, it had quadrupled to nearly 16,000.

Politics and parochialism have always been present in American democracy, but at some point a difference in scale becomes a difference in kind. America did not earmark its way to the moon or to victory in World War II. Nor were earmarks initially vital to big projects such as Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.

As to the “power of the purse,” our founders never viewed that power as a blank check or a license for future spending orgies. In fact, they had the opposite view.

James Madison said, “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Madison, feared a future rush for congressionally directed spending (today’s euphemism for earmarks). Jefferson said such spending would “be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.”

Many well-meaning people conflate compromise with corrupt earmarking. For instance, in a piece applauding Trump’s embrace of pork, Jonathan Rauch, recently wrote, “In the conception of James Madison and the other founders, trading stuff to forge compromises is how complex, divided societies reach political accommodations. Pork-barreling is part of Congress’s job description. The 1790 compromise that united the United States was a pork-barrel bargain: Madison and Thomas Jefferson agreed to nationalize states’ debts in exchange for Alexander Hamilton’s consent to locate the country’s capital in the South, on Madison’s and Jefferson’s home turf.”

Rauch gets Madison wrong (see above) and the 1790 compromise isn’t really comparable to the earmarks of the 1990s and 2000s: The 1790 compromise provided a diffuse benefit to several states in a grand bargain; it wasn’t a bridge, museum or monument for a particular member delivered on behalf of a particular interest group.

And as for the argument that if Congress doesn’t make decisions, federal bureaucrats will? Never forget that Congress makes the laws for the bureaucrats.

Members of Congress aren’t helpless bystanders. The bureaucrats have no rule-making or grant-making authority apart from what Congress delegates to them. None. If the laws are vague, then members of Congress have no one to blame but themselves.

In this important sense, the earmark debate illustrates that congressional under-reach can be as much of a threat to democracy as executive overreach.

When Rauch and others say that earmarks are important legislative grease, we shouldn’t forget that the last big bill enacted by Congress with the help of earmarks was President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Whatever you think of the merits of that law, the chaotic and corrupt process by which it was passed was not a study in good government.

Yet, the best argument against earmarks comes just from looking at the earmarks themselves. While earmarks such as the Bridge to Nowhere and the Woodstock Museum (which was wonderfully lampooned by John McCain) endure as icons of self-indulgent graft, the lesser-known earmarks are worse, even. Consider the case of Oregon’s Rep. David Wu.

In 2005, Wu secured more than $2 million in defense contracts for a company in his district that provided polyester T-shirts for Marines. Sounds like an innocuous earmark, right? Wu didn’t realize the T-shirts melted in intense heat, adhering to a soldier’s skin. Captain Lynn E. Welling, the 1st Marine Logistics Group head surgeon, told the Seattle Times, “This essentially creates a second skin and can lead to horrific, disfiguring burns.”

The case of the Wu earmark illustrates how the problem isn’t just political corruption and economic waste. When government is in the business of picking winners and losers, it corrupts the free market. And that sort of corruptions often metastasizes.

The earmark ban was not a populist knee-jerk reaction—it was the product of years of research and debate. In 2007, the Department of Transportation found that earmarks divert funds from higher priority projects (i.e. bridges in danger of collapsing). A 2009 Harvard study found that congressional districts that receive a disproportionate share of earmarks are worse off than those that receive fewer.

Harvard reported that, “in the years that followed a congressman’s ascendancy to the chairmanship of a powerful committee, the average firm in his state cut back capital expenditures by roughly 15 percent.”

Key Republicans donors followed the debate closely and came to the aid of reformers. Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity launched the Ending Earmark Express RV tour in 2006 (note Mike Pence speaking at the 3:05 mark at the rally). Joe Ricketts and the Ricketts family provided key support through Taxpayers Against Earmarks and Ending Spending.

In 2006, Larry Kudlow urged then-Vice President Dick Cheney to urge President Bush to get rid of earmarks. In his CNBC interview Kudlow pressed Cheney, “Why not just clear out the pork in the federal budget? As you know, there’s a popular outcry to do so. Why not have the White House come out against the earmarks? They’re pork barrel earmarks. They’ve really allowed cash for legislative favors. In some sense, they’re at the heart of the corruption.”

And in 2015, Rep. Mick Mulvaney—now acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney—proposed a permanent earmark ban, saying, “There’s been talk recently about bringing back earmarks in the House. That’s a slap in the face of good governance and I am proud to help lead the effort to ban earmarks for good.”

And then there’s Trump’s current OMB director, Russ Vought, who said in 2008, “earmark reform is vital. It’s the gateway drug to higher spending.”

Vought was quoting from Tom Coburn’s 2003 book Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders. History vindicated Coburn’s gateway drug theory. Spending decreased to $3.45 trillion in 2013 from $3.46 trillion in 2010 when the moratorium went into effect. At that time, spending hadn’t moved backward for a two-year duration since the Korean War.

It’s not clear why people who were so committed to getting rid of earmarks before Trump aren’t fighting to keep them gone under Trump.

I staffed earmark fights for more than a decade while working for Sen. Coburn and I can tell you that ending earmarks was never our final goal. The earmark battle was both a sobriety project for the GOP and step in an incremental, island-hopping campaign designed to strengthen the hand of fiscal conservatives such as Paul Ryan who wanted to reform our entitlement systems before their failures become catastrophic. It’s no accident the advent of the earmark moratorium coincided with the GOP’s high water mark for thoughtful reforms to bigger ticket items, such as Ryan’s Road Map budgets.

Bringing earmarks back would be a disaster for Trump, Republicans, and the republic. As Coburn quipped in 2014, lifting the earmark ban would be like opening a bar tab for a bunch of recovering alcoholics.

The earmark ban didn’t fail. Congress failed to seize the opportunity to return to regular order and get spending under control. Along the way, the Tea Party movement, which was rooted in happy warrior fiscal conservatism, was hijacked by opportunists and hucksters who wanted the GOP to be a single-issue immigration party.

Reformers can be against earmarks and for sensible border security. But as Coburn argued this week, hyper-focusing on a physical barrier at the border has lowered the fiscal barrier around the Treasury.

John Hart

John Hart is the founder of Mars Hill Strategies, former communications director for Tom Coburn, and co-author of two of Coburn’s books, Breach of Trust and The Debt Bomb.