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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.

I think this helps explain why the earmark regime fell apart: it simply grew too quickly as members figured out how much they could get from leadership. In 1991 Citizens Against Government Waste published its first “Pig Book,” which found $3.1 billion in government waste, much of which could be traced back to earmarks. In 2006 (the final year before reform), it found $29 billion. Note
that the size of Congress remained constant, so the growth in the pork barrel is attributable to members figuring out that they could get the leadership to add more projects that cost more money. (Note also that this followed more than a decade of “small government” rule by congressional Republicans!)

Congressional irresponsibility on the pork barrel tracks closely to its irresponsibility on military base closings as well as the old Gilded Age tariff regime. It is a classic “tragedy of the commons.” Sure, in moderation, maybe some pork can “grease the wheels” to make legislation work smoothly. But Congress struggles mightily to behave in moderation. When it comes to legislation that has a particularly large effect on local communities, it is damned near impossible.

This is why it finally had to hand over military base closures to the BRAC Panel; by the mid-1980s it staunchly refused to close virtually any base. It is also why the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 lives in infamy; legislators jammed so many pet protections into the law it sparked an international trade war! In both instances, public disapproval was so great that Congress finally had to tie its hands with formal rules.

(This is actually why I am skeptical that the ban on earmarks will last. In the case of base closings and the tariff, Congress brought the executive into the policymaking process. On the other hand, the earmark reforms did not draw the executive branch into the process, so it is entirely up to Congress whether it will continue to follow its own rules. It is worth noting that Citizens Against Government Waste actually found a few earmarks tucked into legislation this year.)

In my book, I argue that political corruption stems from a fundamental mismatch within the body politic. On the one hand, America celebrates its localistic institutions. Congress may not be held in high regard these days, but virtually nobody wants to change the legislature’s tight connection to geographical neighborhoods. On the other hand, the country wants these localistic institutions to accomplish big, nationalistic goals. This is simply asking too much of them. Congress in particular almost always deals with national problems by currying favor with factions that do not represent the public interest. This is the unifying link that explains political corruption from today all the way back to the first (pork infested) rivers and harbors bill of the 1820s.

The Framers -- when they left Philadelphia in September, 1787 -- never expected this governmental structure to do so many big, nationalistic projects (well, maybe Hamilton did). We the people have, since then, ported onto the government a vast array of tasks that the Framers never intended. A simple illustration as relates to highway spending pork: in 1817 Madison, in one of his last acts as president, vetoed a “bonus bill” that is basically version of today’s highway trust fund. The reason? He thought it unconstitutional.

Think of it this way: if you were designing a government from scratch to handle the vast array of problems that our government claims to deal with, would you design it as our system is designed? Of course not. And importantly, neither would the Framers. Madison in particular was concerned about matching governing structures and powers properly. He never would have signed up for what we have today. Our system as originally built was a delicate compromise that blended localistic institutions with limited national powers. Subsequent generations expanded those powers without substantially updating the institutions.

Thus, our government structure is simply not competent to handle responsibly so many of the tasks we have assigned it. And it behaves in a factional or corrupt way, currying favor with special interests rather than looking out for the public interest.

In theory, using the pork barrel is a way around that, as Edsall suggests. But it is highly problematic: it tries to deal with congressional irresponsibility by giving the legislature a tool that it inevitably uses irresponsibly. The real problem, when you drill down to the essence, is Congress itself.

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