For a minute earlier this week, House Republicans almost did something very smart.
A proposal was offered to bring back earmarks — the pork-barrel spending added to bills that allow individual members a little goody here or there for their district. Speaker Paul D. Ryan put the kibosh on the plan even though it enjoyed significant support within the room, according to The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis. The measure isn't totally dead yet — a task force will look into it, and a floor vote on a revised proposal could happen next year.
Earmarks have been banned since Republicans retook control of the House majority in 2010. Then-Speaker John A. Boehner was a lifelong opponent of earmarking and pushed the prohibition as an example to voters that the GOP was serious about cleaning up Washington. (Republicans had taken a major hit earlier in the decade due to the earmarking scandal of Rep. Duke Cunningham.)
Good! You think to yourself. It's inarguably bad for members of Congress to be able to slip $50 million for a highway with their name on it into some unrelated bill! It's exactly what people are sick of in Washington!
That point of view makes sense — in theory.
But, politics — real politics — isn't a theoretical discussion among political scientists. And if you believe that Congress works better when it, um, actually works, then you should be rooting like hell that Ryan changes his mind if/when the possibility of a return to earmarking comes to the floor for a vote.
Jonathan Rauch, in a hugely important cover story in the Atlantic earlier this year, makes the best case for earmarks I've ever read:
For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district. Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much, and it helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade: You support my pork, and I’ll support yours. Also, because pork was dispensed by powerful appropriations committees with input from senior congressional leaders, it provided a handy way for the leadership to buy votes and reward loyalists. Starting in the ’70s, however, and then snowballing in the ’90s, the regular appropriations process broke down, a casualty of reforms that weakened appropriators’ power, of “sunshine laws” that reduced their autonomy, and of polarization that complicated negotiations. Conservatives and liberals alike attacked pork-barreling as corrupt, culminating in early 2011, when a strange-bedfellows coalition of Tea Partiers and progressives banned earmarking, the practice of dropping goodies into bills as a way to attract votes — including, ironically, votes for politically painful spending reductions . ..
. . . Like campaign contributions and smoke-filled rooms, pork is a tool of democratic governance, not a violation of it. It can be used for corrupt purposes but also, very often, for vital ones. As the political scientist Diana Evans wrote in a 2004 book, Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress, “The irony is this: pork barreling, despite its much maligned status, gets things done.”
Earmarks are the WD-40 that helped the gears of government grind forward. They are the carrot in the carrot-and-stick approach that legislative leaders have long used to cajole weary members to cast a certain vote. They are the cheese on the broccoli.
Politics works best when compromise is incentivized, not scorned. Earmarks helped to do just that. They were a lever to pull on the way to the presumed end goal: dealmaking. Without them, compromise became a dirty word, and the GOP leadership — Boehner chief among them — paid a price. His decision to step down from the speakership (and Congress) was fueled by an inability to rally the bulk of the Republican Conference behind proposals he supported. He couldn't do that because he was, effectively, fighting with one hand tied behind his back due to the earmark ban.
Earmarks are an easy target, sure. Witness John McCain's oft-recited riff on the 2008 campaign trail regarding a $3 million expenditure to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Three million for bear DNA! Outrageous! But, if you think about it, $3 million is a tiny price to pay for some semblance of order and compromise when it comes to the broader spending bills with which Congress must deal. In fiscal year 2010, before the earmark ban went into effect, $16.5 billion was spent on earmarked projects. That's a ton of money, for sure. But it pales in comparison with the $3.8 trillion in spending budgeted for the federal government that year.
The simple fact is that opposing earmarks makes for smart politics and dumb governance. People hate the idea of the government spending their tax dollars on pet projects. But, if you consider those earmarks against the broader spending by the government, they are paltry — a totally acceptable price to pay if it means that Congress begins to work together to solve problems via compromise rather than reverting to the I'm-taking-my-ball-and-going-home stance that has dominated the last six years.
Retiring Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), that most pragmatic of politicians, is an eloquent defender of earmarking. “I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day,” he told Politico in 2014. “Keep in mind that’s what the country has done for more than 200 years, except for the brief period of time in recent years that we haven’t done these. It is wrong to have bureaucrats downtown make decisions in Nevada that I can make better than they can make. I don’t run away at all — this is something that has been going on for centuries in our country and it has worked quite well.”
The federal government is an imperfect system made up of imperfect people. Earmarking may not be the way government should work, according to some textbook. But it is the way government does work. So bring it back.