“I haven’t seen so much lard,” said Ronald Reagan, “since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” It was March 1987, and the president was using his weekly radio address to blast a highway spending bill he’d just vetoed. The next month 13 Republican senators deserted him by voting to help Democrats override the veto. As the late Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat legendary for bringing money home to West Virginia, told his chamber: “Potholes know no party.”
Congressional pork is hard to define with any precision. One man’s sop is another man’s overpass. But earmarks, the specific instructions that Congress tacks onto its spending bills in order to tell the president exactly where in the country the money they’re approving must be spent, are easy to identify and target. Since the days of Byrd, both Congress and the public have soured on them. After the Republicans took back the House in 2010, Congress banned earmarks outright. In the two years since, it’s done nothing but tie itself up with a supercommittee, a sequester, and continued promises to fix things in the future. Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals. Only now do we see how true that was. Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce some congressionally sanctioned bribery? That would let members lay claim to the odd million in the interest of striking a deal worth much more.
Tom DeLay, as majority leader for House Republicans in the early 2000s, used the lure of earmarks to enforce party discipline. Democrats in the minority squealed about the practice. When they took power in 2007, they vowed to reform the system, then started attaching members’ names to their earmark requests in 2008 to increase transparency. Perversely, this made earmarks a fat target for the Republicans who’d staked much of the 2010 election on an anti-spending platform.
Since the ban took effect, the appropriations process has “melted down,” says Sean Kelly, a professor at California State University Channel Islands who’s spent his career studying government spending. In dozens of conversations with staffers and members of Congress, he’s found that there’s now less incentive for a politician to serve on an appropriations committee because there’s nothing to hand out. As a result, says Kelly, the committees attract more partisans and fewer pragmatists–to its detriment. “There’s a human element in lawmaking that is real,” says Tom Cole, a six-term House Republican from Oklahoma. Without earmarks, “you’re removing all incentive for people to vote for things that are tough.”
And the ban, says Cole, hasn’t reduced spending. It’s just moved the decision-making power Congress used to have to the executive branch. “You’ve still got earmarks,” he says. “They’re just getting done by unelected bureaucrats.” Kelly says his conversations with congressional staffers confirm this: Offices on Capitol Hill have been calling over to agencies to ask that parcels of already-approved funding go to their districts. “The people who should love earmarks the most are conservatives,” says Kelly. “What this is about is making sure things are adapted to local conditions.”
Late last year, Cole worked with other senior Republicans to return some kind of limited earmarking authority to the House. Says Cole, “You have to spend millions to save billions.” That’s not going to happen. The effort failed, and the House has since passed rules that keep pork off the table.
The bottom line: Politicians and the public have long complained about earmarks, but there was less dysfunction in Washington when they were allowed.