Bring Back Earmarks? Not So Fast
2:21 PM, Aug 6, 2014 • By JAY COST
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:
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:
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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