After a decade of exile from the Swamp, a special kind of spending provision is making a comeback. Call them earmarks if you love them, political pork if you hate them, this practice of trading of money and favors was banned by both parties in 2011 for a reason – but it’s back, baby. And while it was no surprise to discover that congressional Democrats in the age of Biden welcomed the return with open arms, the GOP response in the House may have some voters’ heads spinning.
Vexing the Voters
When many of the Republicans in office today – in both chambers – first won their seats, they did so by riding a wave of small-government ideological fervor. After many years in practice and more scandals than any sane person would dedicate the time to count, earmarks had left a nasty taste in the mouths of conservative voters. When the GOP needed the headcount, political pork was no good – it was a tool of corruption. But on March 17, while constituents were out enjoying their green beers and Saint Patrick’s Day parades, the Republicans of the House voted to allow earmarks 102 to 84. And they did it by secret ballot so that voters can’t hold them accountable come November 2022. Evidently, when money talks, integrity walks.
“Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people,” soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner said when he banned the practice shortly after the 2010 election. “This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington.”
The Tea Party Republicans hated earmarks, and their clout in that era came from the disgruntled voters who were tired of backing so-called conservatives, only to watch them engage in the same wasteful spending and corrupt dealings as the Democrats. Slightly more than half the House Republicans may think they can justify the practice, but their words ring hollow, echoing off the walls of that secret ballot box and amplified in the emptiness left by the lack of transparency.
Pulling for Pork
As Liberty Nation’s Tim Donner explained, “Earmarks soothed the savage beast and provided the answer to the universal question: what’s in it for me? They were, quite simply, at the heart of how business had always been conducted in Washington – until 2010.”
The argument typically goes something like this: Without earmarks, we have partisan gridlock in Congress. Allowing folks to ask for spending provisions attached to bills that can fund pet projects, repay special interests, or simply give a politician local bragging rights in his or her district helps alleviate this. It gives everyone the opportunity to have skin in the game, so to speak.
A Pig Is a Pig
This is why President Trump even suggested bringing them back in 2018. But it didn’t fly then and it likely won’t fly now with the voters. David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s onetime political adviser, said that trading money and favors made government a well-oiled machine. It sugar coats an ugly truth: A pig is a pig, no matter how you dress it up – and a bribe is a bribe, no matter what clever name you give it.
A legislative process relying on greased palms to slip partisan bills by the opposition is not the heart of the Republic the Founders built. From the beginning, passing laws that affected the entire nation was supposed to be a Herculean task – that’s what protects the people from being devoured by the ever-ravenous beast known as government. For decades, earmarks smoothed the process – and for decades, Democrats and Republicans alike happily fed the beast, watching it grow year by year.
Repercussions for Republicans
Taking earmarks will gain Republicans some control over spending. That’s true. Some argue that earmarks don’t increase spending, as it simply redirects money already being spent, but that argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. One of the most poignant criticisms made is that if the money isn’t needed to begin with for whatever project the opposition wants to fund, simply cut it out of the bill – don’t take it as a bribe and claim to not be part of the problem.
But is that real power for the GOP, as the minority in a Democrat-controlled trifecta? The House is all but a lost cause, of course, but the narrow margin in the Senate gives the GOP some power, so long as the filibuster is not significantly altered or erased. Senate Republicans haven’t decided – or, at least, haven’t announced – whether they will allow earmarks, but the Democrats have. Should Republicans allow it, it gives the Democrats just enough power to siphon off the handful of GOP votes needed to pass any bill they want, with the added bonus of selling it as “bipartisan.”
The history of earmarks is rife with corruption and waste – and there’s no reason to assume the future won’t be the same. Even claims that earmark requests must be announced publicly fall flat after the lack of transparency already demonstrated. Nevermind that secret ballot; you can trust us to tell you the full truth from now on? That’s going to be a tough sell. The next election cycle may feel like ages away, but Republicans eager for some of that “skin in the game” may have a rude awakening coming sooner than they think.
Read more from James Fite.