President Donald Trump is right to urge a revival of the vilified practice of earmarks. Earmarks are good for democracy. But they wouldn’t really solve the problem of congressional gridlock as so many argue.
Earmarks gave Congress the ability to direct agencies to spend for specific projects out of annual appropriations bills. They didn’t increase overall spending. Instead, they carved something out of the overall appropriations to an agency instead of having to submit to the regular process that funds most government projects. Earmarks grew rapidly during the Republican Congresses after the 1994 elections, and remained common in the Democratic Congresses from 2007 through 2010. In 2011, Republicans banned earmarks as “a symbol of a dysfunctional Congress” that wasted too much money on pet projects. But that was a mistake.
The case for earmarks is twofold. Earmarks may be a good idea simply because it’s perfectly fine for Congress to make specific spending choices. It strengthens democracy when politicians, accountable to voters, decide how government money is spent. When bureaucrats make those decisions, it weakens democracy because there’s little voters can do about it. But the more popular argument for earmarks is about efficacy: Legislation will pass more easily, advocates say, if congressional leaders have more tools for winning over individual members of Congress.
My sense is that the efficacy argument is overrated. The problem for House leadership is less that the leaders don’t have enough tools, but that House Freedom Caucus members and perhaps some other Republicans are more concerned with proving their ideological loyalty than with delivering specific benefits for their districts. And despite the earmark ban, congressional leaders still have plenty of ways of favoring House districts or states. We saw that in the tax bill, with various goodies added to secure the votes of reluctant senators — think drilling in Alaska for Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
I asked congressional scholars on Twitter for how much of a difference reviving earmarks would make to greasing the wheels of legislation, and for the most part their answers were similar to what I would have said: It would help, but not all that much. So on a 10-point scale, Molly Reynolds of Brookings and Matt Glassman of Georgetown both said it would be about a 2 or 3. Some did suggest that it would make a more substantial difference on passing spending bills. Georgetown’s Josh Huder said it would range from a minor factor to a major one depending on the appropriation bill (there are 12, each one determining the spending for a group of agencies), but that the effect would be small outside of those bills.
For those who consider earmarks a significantly corrupt practice, I don’t think the efficacy arguments are strong enough to override that. Since I consider them a legitimate form of democratic practice, I’d be happy to restore them even if there were no other advantages. To the extent that they even make a modest difference towards making Congress function better, that’s just gravy.
Trump has a habit of saying he supports things and then backing away from them, so I have no idea whether he’s serious on this one. But I hope he keeps at it. I can’t say I’ve found too many process issues where I agree with Trump, but this is one that he really is correct about.
— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.