Michael Steel served as press secretary for former House speaker John A. Boehner from 2008 to 2015.
As lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to negotiate a tough spending bill this week, many commenters are lamenting the earmark ban put in place by then-House Speaker John A. Boehner in 2010. This has become a popular position for both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Even President Trump has suggested ending the ban.
But eliminating this reform would be a costly and counterproductive mistake.
“Congressionally directed spending” — the preferred euphemism of earmark supporters — has allowed politicians to insert individual spending provisions into larger bills, often without debate or an amendment vote and usually benefiting one congressional district or state. Supporters argue that the long-standing practice allowed democratically elected members of Congress — rather than unaccountable bureaucrats — to set spending priorities in their districts and states. They also believe earmarks could help stifle chaos on Capitol Hill by giving congressional leaders carrots to reward team players and sticks to penalize the recalcitrant.
While it is true that earmarks in some form or fashion date back more than two centuries, their use and abuse exploded after Republicans took control of the House in 1994. This accelerated after the turn of the century as then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay kept slim GOP House majorities in line by ladling out buckets of pork-barrel spending. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it contained 152 earmarks. By 2005, President George W. Bush signed a transportation bill that included 6,371.
Earmark money is not equally divided among all members and senators. Nor is it allocated based on the needs of a particular state or congressional district. Earmark spending is controlled by power. More money is spent to assuage members on the “right” committee, with greater seniority or whose votes leadership needs on an unrelated issue. That’s great for voters living in a state or district represented by a powerful member of the majority party, but it’s inherently unfair.
Further, earmarks replace the open, democratic process that should be used to allocate federal spending with backroom deals and graft. Explaining his opposition to earmarks to his local editorial board, then-Arizona Rep. John Shadegg once pointed across the street to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Those experts working on transportation issues every day and assessing the needs of the whole state, he said, should decide where a new overpass or highway exit belonged — not a leadership or committee aide haggling with a congressman or senator in a Washington cloakroom.
Worse, earmarks entice members and senators to vote for things they wouldn’t otherwise support. If you want “your” money for “your” projects, you have to vote for the overall bill. That’s why, even though earmarks constituted a small portion of federal appropriations, then- Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn used to call them a “gateway drug” to higher government spending. If you balked at a pricey spending bill or disagreed with leadership on policy, your provisions wound up on the legislative cutting-room floor.
Finally, the practice of earmarking inevitably invites corruption. Earmarks figured prominently in the long litany of scandals leading up to Republicans losing their House majority in 2006. Boehner, then the House Republican leader, responded by telling members that an earmark ban was the first step they needed to repair the broken bonds of trust between Congress and the American people.
Plus, earmarks today simply would not work the way they did in the past. The system relied on members and senators being able to brag about securing projects at home without facing scrutiny from the national media. The climate and media landscape have only become more transparent, aggressive and immediate since then.
Can you imagine a member or senator, facing a tough decision on repealing and replacing Obamacare or overhauling the tax code, flipping their vote in exchange for a new post office or highway rest stop or any kind of new federal spending back home? They would be exposed instantly and pilloried mercilessly.
Democratic senators who secured state-specific carve-outs in 2009 during the debate over the Affordable Care Act — changes they assumed voters back home would appreciate — know this well. They were startled to find their cherished provisions rechristened in national headlines as “The Cornhusker Kickback” or “The Second Louisiana Purchase.”
There is no question that Congress is struggling to operate successfully in the face of changing technology and a changing society. Incentives have changed, and the institution has not yet changed with them. But ending the earmark ban would not simply turn back the clock to a more orderly era, any more than protectionist trade policies would bring back the “good old days” of the 1950s American economy. We need new thinking and new approaches.