WASHINGTON — As the federal government recovers from a 16-day shutdown and lurches toward another potential crisis in January, some lawmakers and political analysts think it’s time to revive the old-fashioned horse trading that used to help Congress get things done.
They say Congress should lift its ban on earmarks, those once-popular legislative provisions that allowed members of Congress from both parties to bring home funding for roads, bridges, sewers, colleges, medical centers and other local projects.
Earmarks were often used to sweeten a bill to attract votes from reluctant lawmakers. They were banned by House Republicans beginning in 2011 amid criticism that they had multiplied out of control and were being used for questionable projects such as the notorious “bridge to nowhere” that would have benefited a tiny Alaskan town at a cost of $320 million.
“Without the grease or lubricant of earmarks, it’s much more difficult to reach a compromise on some of these tough issues,” said Scott Frisch, a political science professor at California State University, Channel Islands and co-author of “Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy.”
“Earmarks were a tool that leaders could use to help make deals,” Frisch said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has acknowledged that it is tougher to round up the 218 votes needed to pass legislation without earmarks. He struggled to control his divided GOP caucus during the recent shutdown and debt ceiling crisis.
“I’ve got no grease,” he said last year in an interview with CNN.
Still, Boehner supported the ban on earmarks passed by House Republicans in 2011 and renewed this year. The Democrat-controlled Senate has rejected bills to permanently ban earmarks, but it is living under a self-imposed moratorium.
Even if earmarks were revived, opponents say, it’s questionable just how much “grease” Boehner would have in a House where “tea party” Republicans play a key role in the GOP caucus. Tea party Republicans, while a minority, are outspoken opponents of earmarks, which they see as wasteful “pork barrel” spending.
“They campaigned against earmarks, I don’t see them turning around and taking them now,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which opposes earmarks.
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., isn’t so sure.
“They may have run against it (earmarks), but their constituents didn’t,” said Pastor, the only Arizonan on an appropriations committee, where earmarks usually start. “Even some of these new members realize that their constituents expect them to do something for their districts by bringing roads or bridges or other improvements.”
Pastor, who has served on the House Appropriations Committee since 1993, said Phoenix area residents don’t have to look far to see how earmarks have benefited them.
“Light rail started as an earmark,” he said. “The airport tower started as an earmark. A lot of things have come into Arizona because of members being able to advocate for projects and do earmarking. As long as it’s open and transparent and there’s support at the local level for an earmark, I have no problem with it.”
Many of the Republicans who serve on the House Appropriations Committee agree with Pastor, and some have pushed to end the earmark ban.
“There’s a human element in lawmaking that is real,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. told Businessweek. “(Without earmarks), you’re removing all incentive for people to vote for things that are tough.”
Earmarks allow members of Congress to point to something tangible they have done for their constituents, Frisch said. The political benefits of that can outweigh any attacks from anti-earmark groups.
“People may not know or care how you voted on a policy decision, but they see the expressway with their Congress member’s name on it,” Frisch said.
Although the term “earmark” wasn’t used much until the late 19th century, the practice of earmarking goes back much further. One of the earliest bills passed by the first Congress in 1789 was the Lighthouses Act, which federalized state-owned lighthouses. To get votes for the legislation, its authors put in funding for a new lighthouse in Cape Henry, Va. and new piers in towns along the mid-Atlantic coast.
“Like it or not, it has always been the nature of the legislative process,” Frisch said.
Earmarks were once used sparingly to attract votes on major bills. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, the use of earmarks exploded as they became a tool to garner votes for almost all bills, Frisch said. The number of earmarks in the defense spending bill alone swelled from 270 in 1996 to more than 2,500 in 2005.
Still, earmarks made up only a tiny percentage of the total federal budget. In 2010, the year before they were banned, earmarks were less than 1 percent of the budget.
But those earmarks cost taxpayers billions of dollars and increased the national debt, said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has helped lead the fight against earmarks for years.
“I think it would be terrible to go back to that,” Flake said. “I don’t think we will.”
Flake said Congress has proved it can compromise on major legislation without earmarks.
Flake was part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who helped craft a sweeping immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June. There are no earmarks in the bipartisan bill, which has not been voted on by the House.
“There are tradeoffs you can make that don’t have to involve earmarks,” Flake said. “With the immigration bill, Senator (John) McCain and I had more of a focus on border issues. (New York Senator) Chuck Schumer was concerned about the high-tech industries in his state. (Illinois Senator) Dick Durbin wanted to make sure the unions were protected. You work things out and you compromise.”
When Congress has hit an impasse — as it did when the government shut down — it is a reflection of deep ideological differences, Ellis said. Reviving earmarks won’t fix that, he said.
“This idea that earmarks are some sort of magic pixie dust that makes legislation move doesn’t bear up under scrutiny,” Ellis said. “There have been plenty of years when Congress didn’t pass its spending bills even when we had earmarks. Congress has always been pretty dysfunctional.”