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Bring Back Earmarks? Not So Fast

2:21 PM, Aug 6, 2014 • By JAY COST
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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.

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