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The case against the case for earmarks

Javier Zarracina/Vox

It's become fashionably contrarian to treat the failure of American politics as the unintended consequences of past efforts to improve things: High-minded reforms that were expected to bring fairness and clean government instead eliminated the kind of messy, transactional politics that once bridged partisan conflicts and enabled government to get things done.

The argument goes something like this: More government transparency got rid of the quiet back rooms that enabled dealmaking; campaign finance reform put restrictions on parties that ended up empowering ideologues; and, perhaps above all, the elimination in 2010 of federal budget earmarks destroyed a useful currency for buying up the votes of reluctant members and getting legislation passed.

Vox's Jonathan Allen has made a powerful case that restoring earmarks would help government function again, a case made all the stronger because his own work, published at Congressional Quarterly, helped document the explosion of earmarks in the 2000s and their effects. But while Allen is probably right that earmarks were at one time a useful tool for congressional leaders to keep members in line and get legislation passed, it's wrong to think that simply restoring them would reignite the kind of messy horse trading that made possible such legislative triumphs as the Medicare prescription drug benefit passed in 2003. (Sarcasm intended.)

Put simply, rank-and-file members of Congress, especially Republicans, don't want earmarks, and they can't be bought off with something they don't want. Politics and the Republican Party have changed in ways that made earmarks — and the more transactional approach to politics they were part of — useless.

No doubt congressional leaders of an older vintage, or the retirees housed at the Bipartisan Policy Center, dream of earmarks. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, was quoted by journalist Robert Draper as telling a colleague, "It's not like the old days. Without earmarks to offer, it's hard to herd the cats."

The problem with this kind of nostalgia is the misconception that earmarks were taken away from congressional leaders by some outside group — "reformers." What actually happened was that members of Congress, especially younger Republicans, renounced them. (Sure, some reform groups across the ideological spectrum advocated for an end to earmarks and overstated their harm, but reformers advocate for a lot of things, and Congress ignores almost all of them.)

Unlike Gingrich's cynical revolutionaries, who often represented districts still wobbling between one party and the other, more recently elected members of Congress tend to represent more sharply partisan districts. (The most recent analysis by the Cook Political Report shows that 210 Republican members, just shy of a majority, hold safe seats.) They don't need to bring home any bacon to secure reelection.

Other politicians, even without the security of partisan districting, have likewise tested the limits of pork-free politics: Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida each turned down massive infrastructure projects, worth many billions in federal money and tens of thousands of jobs, and glided to reelection. Other governors rejected the almost-free federal cash from the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid.

Contempt for government is no longer just rhetoric layered on top of traditional pork barrel politics; it's deeply embedded in the current Republican Party and not limited to the Tea Party wing, plus — protected by safely drawn districts, money, and limited voter turnout — politicians are willing and able to deal with its consequences. Earmarks are merely a symbol of the kind of politics that the newer Republican members, in particular, want nothing to do with.

In his recent autobiographical account of the development of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler several times invokes the metaphor of the bowl of cashews on the table before dinner, which the guests agree to remove, to prevent themselves from eating more. In Allen's interpretation, earmarks are like cashews: a kind of self-denial, but if we just put the bowl back out, people will start eating them again and perhaps will be more sociable. But the current Congress seems more like a new group of guests who just don't like cashews — or each other. We miss the old guests, but they are gone.

The focus on earmarks as a solution to congressional dysfunction overlooks a much bigger change in American politics. The old rules of politics, such as that Americans are "philosophically conservative but operationally liberal" (that is, they like to hear talk about smaller government, but they like the stuff government gives them), are falling away. Conservatives used to propose abstract mechanisms to eventually cut government spending, such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution or a cap on entitlement spending, but avoided talking about actual cuts that could hurt middle-class people or communities.

That changed with Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plans, starting in 2011, which put his party on record in favor of specific Medicare cuts that would affect people born after 1955. Congressional Republicans voted for that budget every single year, and the sky didn't fall. In fact, they even retained the ability to attack Democrats for cutting Medicare!

This isn't just politics with earmarks removed, but a much bigger change in the assumptions and rules of thumb by which both politicians and journalists understand the institutions of government. There's no map to this political landscape in which the old transactional infrastructure, with its tiny horse trades, its cautious hypocrisies, and its occasional grand bargains, is absent.

Transactional politics, even at its ugliest, helps offset and moderate purely ideological conflict, creating alternative coalitions and relationships, often across party lines. Without it, all that's left is ideological conflict, in a political structure that, unlike a parliamentary system, isn't well-designed for pure ideological conflict. Restoring some of the formal procedures of transactional politics, such as earmarks, won't change a political culture, or a party, that has sworn off transactional politics. Restoring the old rules, or creating new ones, is a much bigger project than just bringing back earmarks.

Mark Schmitt is director of the program on political reform at New America.