In praise of earmarks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

But what if you’re a Democrat? In these days of Republican rule, you might have discovered a newfound love for stasis. Still, earmarks make it harder for, say, far-right party members to hold legislation hostage to their demands. In other words, party leadership can put up a more centrist bill and then buy off the extremists with local benefits rather than policy concessions.

There is much more at the linkAddendum: I thank Garett Jones for spurring my interest in this topic.


In other words, earmarks foster corruption and corruption is good because the wheels must be greased... with money!

Yep. Might as well legalize outright bribery of politicians at all levels, too.

Talk about eliminating gridlock -- things would really start happening!

Think of all the fiscal responsibility and coherent policy it would generate! Recalcitrance would vanish, and all the mayors and governors of the USA would have something to pursue besides ideology!

Small steps to a much bigger pork barrel.

So being a recalcitrant ideologue leads to perks for your local constituency? I guess the equilibrium is a faux-recalictrant-idealogue arms race to compete for ever growing barrels of pork.

Also, from WaPo:

"Here’s the rub: The good old days weren’t so good. Former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) literally had a “bribe menu” that told defense contractors exactly how much they could pay for him to deliver earmarks to their businesses. He left Congress in 2005 and spent seven years in prison for taking $2.4 million. That included a yacht named after him (“The Dukester”) that was provided by a defense company president and docked at the waterfront near the Capitol. It doesn’t include the prostitutes that were also made available to him.

Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? In 2005, Congress earmarked $223 million to link the remote Alaska town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the even more remote island of Gravina (population 50!).

There were smaller, but just as memorable, abuses: Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) got half a million bucks for a teapot museum in a town of 18,000. (It shuttered when the federal money dried up.) "

Maybe Gravina had such a small population because people couldn't get there. The island is rather large.

Government funding for development projects that produce jobs and culture is perfectly legitimate despite what the ideologs insist.

Only an ideolog would think that.

By your definition many framers of the Constitution were "ideologues." I suppose the federal government should also pay to fix your glass house I just threw a rock at.

$223 million is a lot, but the reason for the bridge is that while only 50 people live on Gravina, the local airport is on that island and they wanted to replace the slow ferryboat ride. And like a lot of Alaska towns in that part of the state, due to the mountainous terrain and numerous inlets, there are no roads into town (famously, Juneau is the only state capital not on the Interstate highway system) so getting in and out is by plane or boat.

Yeah, it's still pork at that price for 9000 people in Ketchikan (I imagine the cost is inflated by the location and the need to make the bridge high enough not to impede water traffic), but it's not as bad as it sounds. I didn't know about the airport until I read an ESPN article about it a decade after the controversy, so don't feel bad.

Corker kickback?

Earmarks are just as bad as tax preferences. Prior to banning earmarks, seats on the Appropriations committees were highly treasured as it gave representatives undue power as they ultimately had control over the earmark process. Since that reform, most of the Appropriations work is pro-forma but they still cannot get things done on time (the reason for the ongoing continuing resolutions). Tyler is just wrong to think that bringing back earmarks will help heal a fractured Congress. Congress was fracturing even when earmarks were still permitted. This column is a bad idea that should have never seen the light of day (or electrons over the Internet).

Earmarks are just as bad as tax preferences.

Not even close in their accumulated dimension and distortionate effect.

Here's a suggestion:

1. Abolish the Appropriations committees.

2. Assign every federal agency to one or another jurisdictional committee. You'd have one committee for the Congress as an apparatus, one for the judiciary, one for each cabinet department. The stand-alone agencies could then be assigned to a departmental committee, clustered and assigned to a committee incorporated for the cluster, or assigned to a miscellany committee. Have a completely parallel set, one for the Senate, one for the House.

3. Have each jurisdictional committee be responsible for producing an appropriations bill for all agencies under its aegis and give that committee jurisdiction over any authorization bill affecting its agencies (with some bills being assigned to one committee for markup, some assigned to joint markup by multiple committees, and some assigned to serial markup by several committees).

4. Have the Budget process begin with a resolution in the House which specifies global spending, tax rates (not tax architecture, changes to which would be tolled for a year upon enactment), and public sector borrowing authorization. It would have about two dozen line items specifying the sum each committee has been assigned to allocate in its appropriations bill. It goes from the Budget committee to the Rules committee, which specifies a floor rule. Once passed, it's handed off to the Senate Budget committee which modifies it per taste. It then goes to the Senate Rules committee, is assigned a floor rule, and goes to the Senate floor. Once passed, delegations from each budget committee produce a compromise which is subject to an up-or-down vote in each chamber. If passed, it goes to the President, who may sign it or veto it. If signed, every part is bound by it by law until the end of the fiscal year.

5. At this point, two dozen or so House committees each begin work on appropriations bills for their agencies, working with the constraint set by the Budget resolution.

There are other efficiencies you can enact, e.g. limiting every member of the House to just two committees, limiting every member of the Senate minority to two committees, limiting every member of the Senate majority to no more than three committees, and limiting the membership of Senate committees to nine (with all but a couple having just seven members). Another thing you might try would be to cut back on the number of federal officials subject to advice and consent (say, presidential appointments outside the executive branch, ambassadors, U.S. Attorneys, U.s. Trustees, and about 350 officials of the executive) and have ad hoc committees picked by lot hold confirmation hearings for the most numerous classes of presidential appointed subject to Senate vetting (federal judges, U.S. Attorneys, ambassadors, and Trustees). You can limit holds on nominees to four business days, get rid of blue slips, and eliminate the filibuster and replicate the House's parliamentary rules for use in the Senate.

They don't get their work done because They Just Don't Feel Like It.

My comment at Bloomberg was off the mark (it was about a bunch of little earmarks being better (i.e., doing less damage) than large programs such as Obamacare). More likely is that Cowen understands that America is such a large and sprawling place that large programs are all but impossible to get past Congress, even when highly desirable. Better to have many small programs designed for particular regions which, in combination, can come close to achieving desirable but impossible to pass large programs. America isn't China, the latter having a government with authority to determine which large programs are best for China. Earmarks are to America what industrial policy is to China. Live and learn.

Just in case readers don't get my analogy, earmarks are rarely if ever social welfare programs, they are things such as roads and bridges and buildings. And just in case readers don't get the political implications, so-called white nationalist are anything but: they may be white but they aren't nationalists, they are provincialists. Thus, the advantage of earmarks is that they fund things not social welfare and they get around America's provincialism. The alternative would be China, but I don't believe America is ready to be China. Not yet, anyway.

This is an interesting topic and I don't have a strong preference either way. If earmarks help, then pragmatically we should implement them, but do they really help? What does the literature say?

Depends on what school you subscribe to: the Virginia/GMU Public Choice school or the Harvard "Government is Good" school I suppose. I think the VA school would argue 'gridlock is good' under the theory the more government is tied up doing nothing, the better.

If it doesn't work, what's the harm? I suppose there is harm if members get pork without compromising on anything, but why would people allow pork to pass without some quid pro quo?

Perhaps allowing pork would change the negotiation strategy making members take harder line positions to begin with in order to have more to concede. Not sure how easy that would be to pull off in practice.

Meh. The earmark prohibition only applies to appropriation bills so "promises" are of little worth since no leader can guarantee an outcome in a separate piece of legislation. And in non-appropriations bills, backscratching, logrolling, and incentivized compromise are still the order of the day. The best example of this, of course, was the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Who can forget the Louisiana Purchase, Gator Ade, Cornhusker Kickback, Bernie's Maple Sugar, the Great Michigan Giveaway. No, I don't think the Republic is suffering from inadequate means of bribing legislators.

I found the old "earmarks are bad" arguments a bit easier to process. I can't quite follow why they are good again, but i can endorse this:

"But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy."

Yep, a large standing army since FDR died is a really bad leftist big government thing to funnel earmarks to political allies to win elections.

We should return to GOP small government and disband the Army, Navy, and Air Force. No need for anything more than the Navy and Marines to implement foreign policy.

Think of how the economies of so many Red States will explode once freed of the burden of billions in military spending!

Tyler's post touches on some of the Hamilton vs. Jefferson disputers re: the role of corruption (for lack of a better word) in government, with Jefferson the idealist and Hamilton the pragmatic. Tyler's position is one with which Hamilton probably would have agreed: instead of designing government operation according to the way people should behave, design it according to the way they do.

*edit- should read "disputes"

I sometimes find Dr. Cowen's arguments too abstruse to follow, but I am 100% behind him here. Based on simple gut feel, as I haven't read the (probably) dozens of academic theses on this topic. What it comes down to me is (prepare for a horribly mixed metaphor), if you can't horse trade at the margin, every vote becomes a referendum on nuclear war. And when THAT situation develops, what happens? Either nothing gets done (I know, there is a strong argument to be made for Congress never doing anything), or we get bizarre "loose baggy monsters" of bills, where Rs and Ds and liberals and conservatives dump all their wants into the hopper. Thus we have DACA in the spending bill. I don't know which is worse in reality, but emotionally I prefer the old system, where we had relatively "clean" bills, and then plenty of earmarks attached. Because at least the earmarks were visible and intelligible: "To get me to vote for this, I demanded that for my district." With the loose baggy monsters the information we get is scrambled: vote for the spending bill and you can pick and choose which piece of it you want to tell your constituency about. Thus a "good government" R could vote for "keeping the government going" and an immigration liberal could vote for "saving DACA:" and they are both voting for the same bill. Sheesh.

But is more legislation always a good result?

Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress.
Ok, noted. But is the argument here that because some of the things that party leaders can do are useful, then we should favour structures that make it easier for party leaders to do whatever they want?

Eliminating the Senate filibuster would go a long way to eliminate gridlock.

Let's try that instead of bribes.

Didn't help for health reform, taxes, and budgeting since Trump took office.

Yeah the Senate filibuster exists to prevent drastic changes in policy due to a change in direction of the political winds.

We need it. It prevents massive incredibly stupid policy changes every 2-4 years. It allows businesses to make reasonable plans regarding the regulatory environment.

There’s a reason Ezra Klein et al want to get rid of the filibuster and make the Senate proportional.

It’s not to adhere to the constitutional republic we have.

The filibuster I can take or leave, but I think the idea that a Senate in a Republic should not represent Citizens is pretty situational.

As opposed to ethical.

Well, by definition making the Senate proportional would not be adhering to the Constitution as it is now.

It would still be a very good idea.

Would SALT and MID have been touched with earmarks?

I wonder if earmarks allow politicians proposing reforms to be bought off with weaker re-forms.

Untouchable rails seem to be getting touched more.

SALT in the new law is a bunch of earmarks designed to help Republicans in some high income urban districts which means either high property tax or high income taxes, to note one earmark added to win a couple of GOP votes.

529s used to fund kindergarten, not just higher ed, is another earmark.

Democrats and Republicans are much like the religious. What is "good" and "bad" has nothing to do with the action, but instead is based on the affiliation of the actors. When a woman accuses a man of sexually assaulting her she should be believed - unless you are accusing a democrat running for POTUS. Deficits are evil, until your party controls the revenues/spending.

Trump didn't run as a 'democrat' though.

At last count 46% percent of Americans were independent.

Perhaps they are the ones who refuse to follow such simple rules.

But they’re not independent. They reliably vote for one party only. If anything they’re extreme to the point where they can’t identify with a Mitch or a Nancy.

You’re measuring the right thing and your takeaway is the stupid response. It’s the extremes that are growing. Not the center.

That was a fact free ramble. If you actually cared, as I do, you would have found a study.

'It’s the extremes that are growing' louder. Much, much louder: In part because of a dynamic along these lines - 'the "most important tool used by Facebook and Google to hold user attention is filter bubbles. The use of algorithms to give consumers 'what they want' leads to an unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s existing beliefs."'

This is the sort of thing that product managers do when managing product, after all.

Social media helps zealots focus on their bubble and forget the moderates, but moderates are both numerous and the swing voters.

If you look at the Esquire data you can see how Trump captured that center, once, or at least the dumb part.

Related documentation:

Earmarks are great, that's bribery and extortion is never prosecuted --South Dakota v. Dole. Earmarks prevented the national debt from increasing since 9/11 by offsetting Military spending.

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over voters in an individual district. Recalcitrant voters can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. This gives voters something to vote on other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

But what if you’re a Democrat? In these days of Republican rule, you might have discovered a newfound love for stasis. Still, earmarks make it harder for, say, far-right voters to hold legislation hostage to their demands. In other words, party leadership can put up a more centrist bill and then buy off the extremist voters with local benefits rather than policy concessions.

I would suggest it is a self correcting problem. Without earmarks, politicians can actually lose an election. If they do nothing, or something that annoys their electorate they may get the reward they deserve.

Liberals in Canada, 1993, facing a rather stiff credit market after the Mexican default, cut government spending and eliminated the fiscal deficit. They expected to lose all their seats. It was funny; ribbon cuttings for a $50k pothole repair. Instead of showering money to buy support they actually had to govern well, which they did. They held power for 13 years or so until the internal contradictions within the party tore them apart.

Earmarks have long been a small fragment of the federal budget. The main problem with earmarks is that, as a species of constituent service, they help in making publicity hounds in Congress impregnable. The other problem is what might be called 'chuckschumerism' or 'sleazyaltamatoism' where you have federal agencies getting involved in all sorts of granular local matters because members of Congress are 'building relationships' with local pols. You can ameliorate the latter problem by limiting earmarks to in-house and contracted work by federal agencies, and limit federal financial patronage to unrestricted revenue sharing distributed according to formula. As for the former problem, a constitutional amendment prohibiting a member of Congress from serving more than 10 years in any bloc of 12 or from standing for election if he was going to hit that wall in the middle of his term would be advisable. It would be wildly popular - except among members of Congress and academic political scientists who act as press agents for Congress. Addison Mitchell McConnell delenda est.

It's funny that you focus on earmarks when we just passed a tax bill with more goodies in it that were never discussed to buy off members.

So, earmarks bad,

Tax loopholes good.

Some partisanship (they like to call it "mood affiliation"), some habitual and occasionally knee-jerk contrarianism.

Where's the hat tip to Trump on this one? It's one of the more coherent arguments he's made, despite epitomizing (at least on the surface) the very swamp he supposedly seeks to drain.

Though I agree that earmarks give more power to party leaders, which I think can be a good thing, I'd much rather we do things to more directly empower the parties. McCain/Feingold was the anti-party pro-incumbent campaign finance reform. Let's make it easier for parties to raise money. I'd also like to see reforms that give party leaders more power over nominations. Unfortunately, the nomination system is run by 100 different state parties.

Though I think people overstate the problems with earmarks (often, they're diverting money that was already allocated, telling the agencies receiving it where to spend it rather than giving them additional money), I'm also not sure they even need to be brought back. Just because they're not identified in bills like they were before doesn't mean that party leaders aren't writing bills that give perks to certain districts. Some of those look a lot like earmarks.

I'm also not sure that ideologues who hamper the legislative process are so easily bought by earmarks. Research shows that moderate members of Congress are more likely to engage in credit claiming for spending while extremists are much less likely to do so and more likely to talk about policy in their communications.

And though I think having stronger parties would be better, I'm also not 100% on this either. Republicans were more than happy to add to the deficit while revenues are high and the economy is doing well. We'll have that much less wriggle room when the next recession hits. Maybe if Speaker Ryan had more power over his team he would have passed something that was more deficit neutral, but I'm not sure that's the case.

I'd almost take 100% gridlock since about the year 2000 than the legislation that Republicans and Democrats have passed since then.

For many years, earmarks were the lubrication for the machinery of legislation. Without them, the machine suffers friction which results in heat and noise, but no progress.
Bring them back - with sufficient controls to mitigate their corrupting influence.

Banning earmarks has also enhanced the power of the executive. Congress is supposed to have the power of the purse. Members of congress know the needs of their districts much better than the Department of Transportation, for example. Earmarks should be transparent, and they were for a time before they were banned.
They would be a useful tool for members to meet the real needs of their district, rather than begging an executive apartment to fund certain projects . . . so called "letter-marking". I am a former congressional staffer to a member of the appropriations committee. I served while earmarks were active and then while they were banned. And I agree very much with Tyler's argument that banning earmarks has contributed to increased polarization.

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