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Bring Back Earmarks? Not So Fast

2:21 PM, Aug 6, 2014 • By JAY COST
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Writing at the New York Times, Thomas Edsall makes a provocative and counterintuitive argument about earmarks:

The ban on earmarks, adopted after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, has tied the hands of congressional leaders. Still, earmarks, despised by reformers on the left and right, served an essential political purpose. The House and Senate leadership and ranking committee members used earmarks to persuade their reluctant colleagues to vote for or against key bills; they used them as a tool to forge compromise and as a carrot to produce majorities.

Earmarks are basically legislative-directed expenditures that are inserted into appropriations bills or the accompanying committee report that goes along with them. Long part of the legislative landscape, their use dramatically increased in the 2000s. When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they instituted reporting requirements that dampened legislators' enthusiasm for them. Finally, House Republicans got rid of them altogether in 2011 (although I strongly suspect someday they will return).

As I am now putting the finishing touches on a history of political corruption—tentatively titled A Republic No More and coming out next year from Encounter Books—I thought I’d take a moment to respond to Edsall’s claim.

Edsall is making a point similar to what Diana Evans asserts in Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress (Cambridge, 2004). Evans argues:

Pork barrel benefits are used strategically by policy coalition leaders to build the majority coalitions necessary to pass broad-based, general interest legislation. Leaders do so by tacking a set of targeted district benefits onto such bills, using the benefits as a sort of currency to purchase legislators’ such bills, using the benefits as a sort of currency to purchase legislators’ votes for the leaders’ policy preferences, much as political action committees make campaign contributions in the hope of swaying members’ votes.

Her empirical case is reasonably solid, which is good for Edsall’s assertion. Yet Edsall is making a normative claim as well as an empirical one here. And the normative claim has problems.

We can appreciate the biggest difficulty by looking a little more closely at Evans’s work. She studies the 1987 and 1991 transportation funding bills and finds that, in 1987, leaders distributed pork barrel (“demonstration”) projects strategically -- i.e. to buy votes. However, in 1991, they encountered a problem:

Members see that they could have bargained for a project the first time around and decide not to give away their votes this time. So the demand for projects skyrockets, as it did on the second highway bill. Moreover, because leaders find it more difficult to ascertain members’ true intentions, they give up and distribute projects indiscriminately, without regard to members’ likely support for the bill ex ante.

In other words, the efficiency of the strategy degraded rather quickly. Members who voted for the 1987 bill without getting a project saw that their colleagues who held out god a big payday. So, in 1991, they decided to hold out as well.

This speaks to a major problem with using pork barrel benefits as a way to corral votes for major pieces of legislative. When members realize that holding out will give them a payday, they will hold out. If they all do it, the cost of getting a deal will skyrocket. This may not be a problem for one-off pieces of legislation (e.g. NAFTA, where Bill Clinton employed a similar tactic), but Congress has a whole slate of programs that they re-authorize every year or every couple years. To get these bills past, pork barrel is an extremely inefficient tool.

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