Congress is a beleaguered American institution at a particularly benighted political moment. We all endured images of the literal attack on the symbol of American democracy, the Capitol, last month. In the aftermath we have an unscalable fence topped with razor wire as a lingering symbol of Congress’ weakness and vulnerability. For those of us that want to see that barrier literally and figuratively removed, it’s time for Congress to reaffirm its rightful place in the constitutional order.
Last week, Congress reclaimed an essential spending power. Democrats in the House of Representatives repealed the moratorium on earmarks, which means individual legislators will once again be empowered to direct spending to repair bridges, widen roads, and invest in economic revitalization projects. Wisely, legislators put new safeguards around this “community project funding” process to weed out unworthy spending proposals and oversight measures to make sure money is spent appropriately.
Unfortunately, this positive development is already being maligned by critics. The cant against these special appropriations is as old as the republic, and stories of bad earmarks, bad actors, and cliches about “pork barrel politics” have provided critics with plenty of ammunition. But the truth is that earmarking, or legislatively directed spending as it is styled inside the Capitol, is a critical tool of governance.
Congress enacted a moratorium on earmarking in 2011, when the country was in the depths of economic hardship, simultaneously recovering from a mortgage crisis and attempting to shed an enormous budget deficit. Earmarking was an easy target: high profile scandals — like the “earmarks for bribes” scandal of the recently pardoned former California Representative Randy Cunningham — had recently been in the headlines. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ “Bridge to Nowhere” drove home the public perception that the practice was laughably wasteful and unmoored from the needs of everyday Americans.
The truth is Congress should balance the potential abuses of the “pork barrel” with a concern for bringing home the bacon. A new study by myself and Kevin Kosar published by the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates that earmarks were a vital tool for Congress to fund local projects, coalesce majorities, and uphold their constitutional spending responsibilities. Their elimination has not ended special pleadings for federal funding or saved money, but merely shifted decision-making to bureaucrats and partisans in the executive branch.
The moratorium has meant that Americans have fewer options for receiving federal support, and Congress has fewer tools for doing its job of legislating. “Earmarks were not contributors to the federal deficit, and accounted for less than 3 percent of discretionary spending the three years before their suspension in 2011. It’s common knowledge in Washington that deficits are driven by entitlements, like Medicare and Medicaid, and that funding local projects via earmarks was a drop in the federal bucket.
According to interviews with former House members from both sides of the aisle that experienced a Congress with and without earmarks, half reported that direct spending had been a vital means for bringing much-needed federal resources to rural districts in particular. One Republican former member noted that big cities would always get federal money based on formulas, but medium-sized and rural communities lost that ability after the moratorium. A Democratic member said that “rural America will not get the infrastructure they need in my opinion without earmarks,” calling the practice “first aid money for real America.”
In this survey of former House members, nine out of ten said earmarks should be reinstituted with reforms. Based on our research, we recommend that earmarking reforms emphasize fairness in distribution, transparency, and have strong conflict of interest rules. Congress is an institution endowed with the constitutional responsibility of representing all of our diverse and extended republic. It is easy to lose sight of this in our hyper partisan politics. Members know they are sent to Washington to represent their states and districts’ needs, and that the executive branch cannot hope to have the same connection and understanding as they do to all Americans.
Earmarks empower our representatives and help give them a common purpose as an institution. If this basic constitutional principle becomes yet another empty partisan battle about the “swamp,” Americans will lose out on a primary means of promoting our general welfare and gain nothing in return.
Zachary Courser is director of the Claremont McKenna College Policy Lab.