How Earmarks Can Strengthen Congress

They’re back and they have the power to make Congress work and even encourage cross-party cooperation.

After a decade-long moratorium, Congressional earmarks are back.

Reversing their long standing opposition, House Republicans voted this week to follow Democrats’ lead and allow inclusion of “community project funding” (as earmarks are now rebranded) in Congressional spending bills this year. Under new rules announced by House Democrats, members can submit up to 10 requests each, provided they have no personal financial stake in the projects championed, the money won’t go to for-profit companies and the requests are public.

It’s a welcome development.

Though caricatured as the worst of Washington waste and corruption, earmarks never fully deserved the bad rap. Conservative advocacy groups like Citizens Against Government Waste pilloried “bridges to nowhere” and cherry-picked ludicrous-sounding projects to mock, such as $500,000 for a North Carolina teapot museum and $50 million to build an indoor rainforest in Iowa. Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham spent eight years in prison for slipping favored projects into defense spending bills in exchange for $2.4 million in bribes; his corruption led to the earmark ban in 2011.

But even at their peak, earmarks barely exceeded one percent of total federal spending. They were hardly drivers of government waste; nor did they prompt a seismic shift in the way government spends.

Reviving earmarks will strengthen Congress, as Kevin Kosar of the American Enterprise Institute has argued in this space, by allowing it to reclaim the constitutional power of the purse that’s been ceded to the president for the last ten years. As Kosar writes, the earmark ban “just shifted the decision-making authority to the executive branch and gave already powerful presidents more opportunities to do their own pork-barreling.”

Just as crucially, earmarks will help restore Congress’s functionality and – importantly – its civility. Earmarks could finally force members of Congress to talk to each other as colleagues – something they don’t now do often enough.

If Congress were a business, it would be one of the most hostile workplaces in America. Its employees bring guns to the office (witness Rep. Lauren Boebert and Rep. Andy Harris), and colleagues constantly berate each other in public. Members treat the House floor as a gladiatorial arena rather than what it should be – a factory floor for the assembly of legislative products. Many members – co-workers – don’t know each other at all. As former Rep. Connie Mack told CNN in 2013, “[M]any times I would look up on TV and I would see somebody and then the name would come up and it would say ‘member of Congress’ and I’d go, ‘I don’t even know who that is.’”

Reviving earmarks could change the work environment in Congress for the better and create better members to boot.

First, earmarking gives members a concrete task: Finding ten projects in their district to support. “One of the biggest problems with Congress today is they don’t legislate,” says Mark Strand, President of the nonpartisan Congressional Institute. “The leaders negotiate something with the President and everyone else votes as observers.”

As a result, Strand says, “There are a lot of people out there who are making a career of going on MSNBC or Fox News, and they think their job in Congress is to be a national spokesperson for a particular ideological cause. Part of the reason is because they don’t have anything to do.” Case in point is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who was stripped of her committee assignments for her espousal of conspiracy theories, and truly has no legislative obligations. Proving the adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, Greene has spent her time sabotaging the process of floor votes and delaying even the most mundane House business.

Earmarking, however, “allows all members to participate in creating legislation,” says Strand, and gives them a stake in the success of the final product. It also gives them plenty of real work.

To consider requests, members will need to speak to constituents, get to know their district, conduct research and weigh priorities. They’ll need to prepare documentation and “provide evidence of community support that were compelling factors in their decision to select the requested projects,” as the new rules require. They’ll need to lobby their colleagues because not every request can be honored. Members will build coalitions among themselves. They may even (gasp!) need to speak to members of the opposite party.

“If your district borders on someone else’s from the other party and you share common projects, you have to work together,” says Strand. “You want to be joint advocates for your cause.”And voila, bipartisanship or something closer to it.

This is exactly what happened when I served as legislative director for a Democratic Congressman from Tennessee in the mid-2000s when earmarking was still in full swing. The senior staff of the entire delegation would meet before appropriations requests were due to discuss priorities as a state. I remember attending these meetings, led by the chief of staff for Republican Sen. Bill Frist, then Senate Majority Leader, and the chief of staff for Democratic Rep. John Tanner, then the delegation’s senior-most House member. I learned about needed projects throughout Tennessee and meeting staffers I would never have known otherwise. That would lead to bipartisan pieces of legislation based on those relationships. In a virtuous circle, Republican and Democratic staffers even sometimes grabbed a beer.

These interactions may seem ho-hum but they are what’s now missing from Congress and a root cause of its dysfunction. “Younger staffers often don’t have friends in the other party,” says Strand. “They don’t know anybody.”

Unfortunately, Republicans might not be in much of a hurry to establish these connections. The outrage machine they have built and nurtured for the last 10 years depends on the demonization of political enemies – something much easier to do in the absence of personal connections. It’s easier to trash someone you don’t know or work with. As Christopher Kulp of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics writes, politics today is “more focused on the acquisition of power and less on the pursuit of truth, more enamored of sensationalism and less attentive to the deeper issues of our times, more interested in personalities and less in the plausibility of the policies these persons advocate.”

House Republicans were reportedly reluctant to embrace earmarks, citing their historic concerns over pork-barrel spending and government waste. But it’s not exaggerating to say they feared the return of civility and the reckoning that would precipitate: The ideological rigidity and radicalism that characterize today’s GOP can’t survive the engagement and bipartisanship that earmarks can bring.

Because of this week’s vote, Republicans might become more civil in spite of themselves.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.