The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what will make it harder for Congress to pass a budget this fall

(Joseph Toscano)
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When August comes to an end, members of Congress will be trying to pass a federal budget and figure out transportation funding. But this year it will be harder than in years past. Three years ago, Congress put a moratorium on earmarks, those provisions in spending bills that sent some money to a specific project. Congressional leaders dangled those as carrots when trying to get bipartisan legislative support. Earmarks let members of Congress go home to their constituents and claim credit and garner publicity for securing a bridge here or a health center there—and so gave them an incentive for going along with Congressional leaders. Without earmarks, how can leaders get deals made? This has led some observers to suggest the ban be lifted.

But members of Congress have not entirely cut the pork from their diets. Instead, they’ve switched to a “vegan” substitute  known as letter-marking.

In letter-marking, members of Congress write to the head of a federal agency asking (or demanding) the agency retain or allocate specific projects in their districts. And it’s actually less transparent than earmarking. With letter-marking, members of Congress can publicly call for government spending cuts, while privately working behind the scenes to influence how and where agencies use their budgets.

In a recently published journal article, we examined how many members of Congress used letter-marking to try to save air traffic control towers in their states and districts from sequestration cuts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Our findings suggest that eliminating congressional earmarks has shifted much of the power over where and how to allocate specific projects from members to federal agencies.

How the FAA handled sequestration, to the dismay of some members of Congress

The FAA announced March 1, 2013, that it would pull funding from 173 towers in its Federal Contract Tower Program. The reason: The Office of Management and Budget had ordered the FAA to reduce costs by $633 million, because of sequestration. Something had to go. The FAA chose to close towers at smaller airports because many similarly sized airports operate safely without towers.

The FAA allowed airports to appeal by giving evidence that closing the tower at their airport would damage the national interest. During the one-week appeal process, the FAA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) received more than 100 letters from members of both parties of Congress demanding the agency grant an exemption to keep the tower in their state or district open. On March 22, 2013, the FAA granted 24 exemptions to towers, saying they were critical to the national interest.

Did members of Congress succeed in changing the FAA’s decision?

Our study compares how the FAA’s own assessment of the costs and benefits of keeping the towers open interacted with political pressure. The FAA could issue exemptions to closure by looking at the ratio of benefits to costs. However, it also had to think about how much pressure members of Congress could bring to bear. We collected and analyzed each of the 100 letters from Members of Congress, examining the specific arguments made in support of towers along with the characteristics of the members of Congress who wrote the letters. The letters came from a wide range of members, including some of the most vocal opponents of government spending.

For instance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that the towers at Goodyear and Glendale airports were critical to operations at nearby Luke Air Force Base. Former representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) argued that closing the tower at Anoka County-Blaine Airport would put “the safety of our air transportation system at risk and runs counter to our national security interests.”

In the most passionate letters we examined, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) urged the FAA to “use the discretionary authority available to you” to keep the tower at Kissimmee Gateway Airport open — because that airport brought $100 million worth of economic activity to the region. In another letter,  Grayson noted that Kissimmee’s tower was important to controlling the restricted airspace around Walt Disney World, “which someday may be used in the War on Terror if the various reports of Al Qaeda targeting Disney are true.”

Statistical analysis suggests that the FAA relied primarily on a tower’s ratio of benefits to costs in deciding whether it would receive an exemption. Interestingly, we found the letters from members of Congress only influenced the agency’s decision-making process for towers where the benefit-to-cost ratio was marginal (not low enough to rule out an exemption but also not high enough for an automatic exemption). Nor was the agency partisan; it granted exemptions to Republicans and Democrats at the same rate.

Does the “new pork” work as well as the old?

The FAA case shows that not only did the earmark ban make it much more difficult to pass budgets and other pieces of important legislation, but also that members of Congress gave up control of the allocation of projects vital to their reelection — power that now rests with federal agencies.

Members of Congress used to be able to hand out the pork. Now they must line up at the trough like everyone else.

Russell W. Mills is an assistant professor of political science at Bowling Green State University and a former FAA policy analyst. Nicole Kalaf-Hughes is an assistant professor of political science at Bowling Green State University. Jason A. MacDonald is an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.