Before the “Bridge to Nowhere” became a legislative cliché, there was the highway to Dennis Hastert’s farm.
Hastert was speaker of the House in 2005 when he secured a $207 million earmark, tucked into a $244 billion transportation funding package, to build the so-called “Prairie Parkway”—a proposed 33-mile highway through the exurbs west of Chicago that was ostensibly meant to connect two interstates. Hastert promised that it would ease traffic flows, and President George W. Bush described it as “crucial” for the fast-growing region’s economic fortunes when he signed the massive transportation bill into law during a visit to the area.
But there was another crucial quality to the Prairie Parkway. Plans called for it to pass within a few miles of nearly 300 acres of land that Hastert, his wife, and some business partners had purchased two years earlier. The tract had no easy access to roads when Hastert bought it, but as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, he was well-positioned to change that. A few months after the earmark was approved, Hastert and his partners sold their suddenly more-valuable land to a developer and pocketed millions of dollars in profit.
It’s a quaint scandal by contemporary standards, but the Hastert highway project is a useful example of the types of things that could, and did, happen when Congress used pork projects as political currency. It was wasteful. It was self-serving. It was opaque. Hastert didn’t disclose his financial interests in the project until the Chicago Tribune and the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, called him on it. When Congress banned earmarks a few years later, it was to prevent exactly this type of abuse.
On the other hand, Congress did pass a major transportation bill in 2005. That’s a quaint notion too.
Earmarks are set for a possible renaissance in 2021, as Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives suggest that a return to pork-barrel politics could be a way to break gridlock in Washington and allow Congress to do big things again. Maybe it could even pass a real budget for the first time in years.
Some now see the demise of earmarks, a major reform championed by the early Tea Party Republicans of a decade ago, as a misstep that has weakened congressional leaders’ ability to coerce support from the rank and file and contributed to Congress’ impotence and dysfunction.
But while abolishing earmarks hasn’t stopped wasteful government spending or shrunk the federal budget, bringing them back won’t accomplish those things, either. Earmarks are unlikely to do much to soften the hardening partisan lines or restore Washington to the supposed glory days when legislators could agree to act in the country’s best interests, as long as there was a little something in it for them.
If the price for getting more legislation out of Congress is increased waste and the potential for more corruption, we should prefer to get less legislation.
Earmarks as Bribery
In October, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan 12-member commission, published a unanimous list of 97 recommendations for improving America’s national legislative body. Among them was a call to resurrect earmarks, an idea that has already gained some traction.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D–Md.) told Roll Call in November that he’d favor bringing earmarks back with certain transparency and accountability reforms, such as those suggested by the select committee. The new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.), also supports a return for earmarks.
Congress has been operating without earmarks since February 2011, when House Republicans banned their inclusion in spending bills. The Senate has since implemented its own ban as well. That’s long enough that many Americans might not remember how completely out of control the congressional earmark situation had become by the mid-2000s. The 2005 transportation bill that included Hastert’s highway contained more than 6,300 items of “congressionally directed spending.” At the time, fiscal conservatives had urged Bush to veto the bill, noting that President Ronald Reagan had vetoed a similar bill in 1987 for having about 150 earmarks.
Thomas Schatz hasn’t forgotten. As the president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the co-author of the group’s annual Congressional Pig Book, Schatz has been chronicling wasteful government spending since 1991.
One of the most egregious examples was $500,000 appropriated to refurbish entertainer Lawrence Welk’s childhood home in Strasburg, North Dakota, a town of about 500 people. Another half-million dollars was dropped on a planned teapot museum in Sparta, North Carolina. It was envisioned as a somewhat bizarre roadside attraction that would display the nearly 17,000 teapots amassed in a private collection. The intention was to lure passing tourists to the economically depressed town.
“We got $500,000 out of $29 billion,” then–Mayor John Miller told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, shortly after the teapot museum was featured in the Pig Book. “We don’t think we broke anybody. The museum will bring more people to town. It will be a big boon if we can get it going.”
They never did. Despite the federal earmarks and another infusion of $400,000 from the state, the museum remains unfinished today.
Two of Schatz’s favorite examples of outlandish pork projects are connected to Alaska and two longtime lawmakers who earned reputations for bringing home the bacon.
The first was a $25 million grant to the University of Alaska to study how to trap energy from the aurora borealis. It was awarded at the behest of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) in 1993. At the time, he told The Washington Post that the northern lights contain “more energy than there is in the whole United States. Is it possible for mankind to think of using that energy? I don’t think we should abandon the thought.” So taxpayers paid for it.
“It reminded me of a bad Jules Verne novel,” says Schatz. Stevens was one of the most effective porkers in Washington during his long Senate career, which ended in 2009. Between 1991 and his retirement, he brought home more than $1 billion in earmarks, according to CAGW data. He also fought to block earmark transparency measures passed by Congress in 2006 after the Hastert highway scandal.
Like Stevens, Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska), who has been the state’s lone congressman since 1973, has an impressive pork-hauling record. He has also been an outspoken critic of the earmark ban. That’s unsurprising, since Young was the point man on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere—probably the pork project most responsible for getting earmarks banned.
The proposed bridge would have replaced a ferry that connects the small community of Ketchikan, Alaska, to its airport. The $223 million earmark, which was approved in 2005, exploded into national politics during the 2008 presidential campaign when then–Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin framed the project as an example of Washington waste, even though she had previously supported the project.
The Bridge to Nowhere, the Hastert highway scandal, and the 2005 conviction of lobbyist Jack Abramoff on charges that he’d taken bribes to steer funds to a Native American casino project all made earmarks an obvious target for reform-minded politicians running on promises to clean up Washington.
In advance of the 2010 midterms, the GOP vowed to unilaterally disarm by not requesting earmarks. After taking control of Congress in early 2011, Republicans under then–Speaker of the House John Boehner banned the practice. In his State of the Union address that same year, President Barack Obama (who had criticized the use of earmarks as a member of the Senate) vowed to veto any bill containing them. “Bribery,” quipped the late Sen. Tom Coburn (R–Okla.), an outspoken earmark critic, in a 2018 op-ed, “should never be one of the steps in how a bill becomes law.”
Dramatic examples of wasteful federal spending are a dime—or maybe a few million dollars—a dozen. But even despite the large price tags, earmarks were never a major cause of America’s fiscal problems or Congress’ inability to balance the books. The major drivers of America’s out-of-control budget deficits, both in 2011 and today, are military spending and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which run on autopilot. Together, those items account for more than 70 cents of every dollar the government spends. In contrast, even at their peak in the mid-2000s, earmarks never accounted for more than 3 percent of discretionary spending, and discretionary spending amounts to a little more than one-third of all federal outlays.
Calling the arrangement that’s existed for the past 10 years an “earmark ban” is a misnomer in two ways. For one, earmark is a loosely defined term that can be used to describe certain types of spending that are still included in many omnibus bills and doled out via grant programs administered by executive branch agencies. What changed in 2011 is the process through which that spending is approved. Now, instead of itemizing specific projects and funding in a budget bill—such as $500,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta, North Carolina—Congress might create a $10 million grant program for roadside attractions, direct the money to the Department of Transportation, and let the department review applications from Sparta and any other towns. In theory, the new system emphasizes fairness and competition, though critics say it has merely shifted political power away from the legislative branch.
The 2011 change is also not a ban in the conventional legal sense. Like any other rule that Congress imposes on itself, the prohibition can be undone at any time. It will only last as long as members of Congress agree to abide by it. Lawmakers from both parties have flirted with restoring earmarks for years, most notably in 2018, when President Donald Trump reportedly floated the idea to a gathering of Republican senators.
But the dam isn’t breaking just yet. Just before the House’s moratorium on earmarks officially expired in early 2020, Senate Republicans voted for a supposedly permanent ban on the practice—though it only applies to the GOP conference and, again, is one of those “rules” that can be broken at any time if the political will dries up.
“Earmarks are a crummy way to govern, and they have no business in Congress,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.), who championed the newest earmark ban, after his colleagues approved it. “Backroom deals, kickbacks, and earmarks feed a culture of constant incumbency and that’s poisonous to healthy self-government.”
Earmarks as Incentives
Critics argue that the earmark ban has been poisonous, too. “Restoring positive incentives for lawmakers to embrace negotiation and compromise could provide at least some counterbalance to the partisan forces fueling rigidity and gridlock,” the editorial board of The New York Times argued in December. The paper said lawmakers should “abandon” the earmark ban because it “has made Congress less accountable and more dysfunctional” and because “nothing greases the gears of government like pork.”
It’s a view that has been echoed by policy wonks at establishment think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and by anti-establishment anti-wonks such as former President Donald Trump, who reportedly urged Senate Republicans to bring back earmarks by arguing that the system “brought everybody together.” In short, proponents of a return to earmarks argue that it’s possible for congressional leaders to reap the benefits of earmarks—to dole out special favors in return for key votes—without a return to the opaque and corrupt past. They argue that the earmark ban has failed to curb spending but has contributed to a culture of gridlock in Washington and hardened partisan tensions.
It is certainly true that Congress has failed of late to fulfill its most basic budgetary responsibilities. Each year, Congress is required to pass 12 funding bills for various parts of the federal government—one for each of the subcommittees within the House Appropriations Committee, where all spending bills are supposed to originate.
Yet Congress passed exactly one appropriations bill on time from 2011 (when the earmark ban was enacted) to 2018, rather than the 84 that should have been passed during that period, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Instead, lawmakers now rely on short-term continuing resolutions and gargantuan omnibus spending packages that receive little or no committee-level scrutiny.
The traditional, practical argument for earmarks is that they help grease the skids of government by providing a form of political currency for leaders to spend. “It was only a small piece of it, but [earmarks were] something that you could do to bring that reluctant person along,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, told Reason in a 2015 interview. “When you lost it, both because of procedural changes and because the Tea Party said we’re gonna vote against people who take earmarks, it was kind of in some ways the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
This argument assumes that, on net, more legislation is good. But the country may in fact be better off when elected officials face artificial barriers to implementing their will.
In his 2015 book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Backroom Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, and in subsequent articles, Rauch has outlined two other arguments that a libertarian audience might find more compelling.
First, despite their tri-cornered hats and rhetorical flourishes, Rauch says Tea Party–infused Republican reformers actually undid the Founding Fathers’ wishes when they banned legislative earmarks. The Constitution deliberately vested spending authority under Congress’ purview and ordered that spending bills originate in the House of Representatives. Legislative dealmaking was to be expected, he argues.
One of the first major “deals” in American political history was the 1790 compromise that established Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital in exchange for nationalizing the war debt held by the states. The agreement was initially inked by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson but later passed through Congress. Anyone who has ever suffered through a summer in D.C. can thank pork-barrel politics.
By undoing Congress’ control over earmarks, the 2011 ban simply shifted power to other parts of the government. “The power of the purse migrates to bureaucrats and appointees in the federal agencies, formulas in entitlement programs, and hacks in the White House,” Rauch wrote in a 2018 article for Brookings.
That’s how Congress inadvertently created what Rep. John Mica (R–Fla.), during a brief kerfuffle in 2012, termed “executive earmarks.” Republican lawmakers were accusing the Obama administration of distributing unequal shares of transportation grants to favor blue states. In other words, backroom deals can still happen. But now they happen in different rooms—in executive branch office buildings rather than in the U.S. Capitol.
That leads directly into the second, stronger argument for undoing the earmark ban: It objectively hasn’t slowed government spending.
When Boehner implemented the new policy in 2011, the federal government spent $2.6 trillion and ran a deficit of about $300 billion. Last year, before emergency COVID-19 spending caused both totals to spike, the government spent $4.4 trillion and ran a nearly $1 trillion deficit. Earmarks may have marginally added to the cost of federal spending bills during the 1990s and 2000s, but their absence clearly hasn’t slowed Congress’ willingness to spend beyond its means.
But what about the corruption that earmarking engendered? Rauch and others argue that those issues were addressed even before the ban, in response to the earmark scandals of the mid-2000s. Indeed, the House Select Committee’s 2020 report proposing the return of earmarks—now to be known as “community-focused grants”—was not a call for a return to smoke-filled backroom deals. The new earmarks would be transparent, trackable online, and subject to greater scrutiny before being approved. The Select Committee’s official recommendation is that those grants should be used only to support “meaningful and transformative investments in local communities.”
“We laid out a framework that we thought could avoid some of the abuse of the past,” Rep. Derek Kilmer (D–Wash.), the chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, told The Wall Street Journal last year—a framing that, notably, seems to leave the door open for at least some of the abuse to resume.
For and Against Pork
The great irony of the campaign to bring back earmarks is that it will only be successful if it enjoys the kind of broad bipartisan support that is supposedly near-impossible to achieve in a world without earmarks.
“It’s just a matter of leadership in both parties agreeing not to politicize it,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D–Wis.), chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, told Roll Call last year. He estimated that more than 80 percent of Congress’ members would support rolling back the earmark ban. Politically, however, it seems unlikely that one party would move unilaterally to restore earmarks without the other side taking the plunge too. To do so would be to gamble that voters have completely forgotten about the earmark outrage of a decade ago.
“It’s one of those things where it just won’t stand politically and optically if they don’t all jump together,” says Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group that works to expose waste.
Some of the other arguments pushed by the earmark resurrectionists fall apart equally quickly under scrutiny. Less than three weeks after the Times argued that reviving earmarks was necessary to passing “big ticket legislation, including another meaty round of coronavirus relief,” Congress passed a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package attached to a $1.4 trillion government funding bill.
Would it all have passed more quickly if congressional leaders were allowed to dole out favors to their rank and file? That hardly seems likely, given that overwhelming majorities in both chambers voted for the final package anyway. It was not a lack of support that held up another COVID stimulus package until the end of December but a lack of high-level agreement on what should be included.
That’s why it’s hard to believe that including a few extra million dollars to rebuild post offices or widen highways in key congressional districts would have brought more urgency than a global pandemic that had then killed over 319,000 Americans.
It’s true that there’s been no New Deal or Affordable Care Act passed since the earmark ban. But Congress did pass a major federal tax reform package in 2017 and approved the largest-ever emergency spending bill in March 2020—both without earmarks. When center-left institutions like the Times and Brookings say pork spending is necessary to get legislation through Congress, perhaps what they mean is that it is necessary to get legislation unpopular with Republicans through Congress. The GOP majority in the Senate (and, until 2019, in the House) would seem to have far more to do with the lack of major legislative initiatives than a ban on pork.
The case for restoring earmarks seems to rely on arguing that they are crucially important to a functioning legislature while simultaneously downplaying their significance. “Earmarks were painted as a cover for corruption,” John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and proponent of restoring earmarks, told the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress at a hearing last year. “Much of this was hyperbole, as earmarking was only abused by a handful of members in the past.”
Oh, well, as long as only a few people abused it.
Bringing earmarks back won’t solve most of Congress’ really pressing problems, as Hudak acknowledged. They might get the appropriations process running along something like normal order, he told the committee, but “we’re pretending this is a world where appropriations bills pass and become law and there’s some sort of regular routine funding of the government” without the constant threat of a shutdown.
Would a return of earmarks nudge Congress to complete budgets on time more often? Perhaps, but Congress was terrible at passing those appropriations bills on time even before the earmark ban. Since the current appropriations system was implemented in 1977, lawmakers have passed all 12 bills in a single year just four times—and the last time was in 1997. The mid-2000s peak earmark period did not coincide with a dramatically more productive or efficient Congress.
Congressional complaints about how the executive branch is handling the various grant programs that have mostly replaced the old-school earmark system should also be taken with a shaker full of salt. As Sasse noted in support of the Senate’s “permanent” ban, earmarks are useful for a “culture of constant incumbency,” because lawmakers get to campaign on how much pork they’ve brought home. But if there are no earmarks, lawmakers don’t get applause for winning them. Incumbents have enough advantages already; it’s hardly fair to let them attempt to buy votes with taxpayer dollars.
You can think of this as the inverse of the argument famously made by former Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas) to defend his own track record of securing pork for his district. During the 2008 Republican primary, Paul faced criticism for a history of inserting earmark requests into legislation even though he consistently voted against the final bills. Since the bills were going to pass and the money was going to be spent regardless of his vote, he argued, it would be foolish not to get a slice of the pie for his constituents. Today, lawmakers routinely (and in bipartisan fashion, it should be noted) vote “yes” on huge spending bills, but the lack of earmarks limits their ability to take credit for bringing home the bacon.
The idea that bringing back earmarks would restore congressional comity also seems to ignore how America’s political culture has shifted in the decade since they were banned. In a time before Twitter and nonstop cable news cycles, the old saying about all politics being local was mostly true. In that environment, scoring money for a new park or museum was a way for an incumbent to show he or she deserved re-election, even if it meant voting for a bill pushed by the other political party. But over the last 20 or so years, politics have become nationalized to the point where “bringing home” federal dollars to widen a highway are unlikely to resonate with voters more influenced by the culture war, partisan loyalty, or a lawmaker’s support for Medicare for All. In short, politicians who might once have been willing to do their colleagues a friendly favor in exchange for some pork to bring home may now prefer to score points with their base by sniping on Twitter at folks on the other side of the aisle.
That trend is a corrosive one, and it goes well beyond anything earmarks might solve. Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized (University of Chicago Press), argues that local politics now largely matter only in how they relate to national politics, a change that “stands in sharp contrast to some of the core assumptions” built into the federalized system set up by the U.S. Constitution. That is, it cuts against the notion that legislators are primarily concerned with the well-being of their constituents and motivated by local issues even when they come to Washington. But whether you blame the decline of local media, the dominance of cable news in setting political parties’ messaging, the rise of Twitter in political discourse, cancel culture, Donald Trump, or something else, one thing is pretty clear: It’s not the demise of earmarks that did this.
It may be that this intensifying polarization would reduce the temptation to do earmarks in the first place if they were reinstated. But a more likely development is that various wasteful, porky spending habits will return while the ability to use earmarks to build coalitions on hot-button issues or soothe hurt feelings over touchy subjects will not. Earmarks won’t thaw negative partisanship; they’ll just make government marginally more expensive than it already is.
An Ever-Present Temptation
Where does that leave the case for earmarks? Proponents of undoing the ban are right that shutting off the pork machine hasn’t caused as dramatic a shift as some Tea Party–era reformers promised. It didn’t herald a more accountable Congress. It certainly hasn’t constrained the growth of government.
Those are fair criticisms. But they aren’t a convincing case for bringing back earmarks. The temptation for corruption will always be present, as even the pro-earmarkers admit. And promises of reform and transparency are only as good as any political promise.
There’s one final reason to keep earmarks relegated to the dustbin of congressional history. Like other tools wielded to maintain political power, they aren’t distributed fairly or evenly. In the 111th Congress, the last session before the earmark ban was implemented, just 15 percent of the 535 members of Congress accounted for 61 percent of all earmarks and 51 percent of all money spent on earmarks, according to the CAGW.
“The distribution of funds for earmarks skews heavily toward those in power,” says Schatz.
Not only are earmarks a tool of incumbency, but they’ve historically benefitted those already at the top of the political hierarchy—a point that progressive Democrats, in particular, should keep in mind before supporting their return. A Congressional Quarterly review of Taxpayers for Common Sense’s database of historical earmarks found that black and Hispanic Democrats in Congress got, on average, half the amount of earmarks that white Democrats did. In fact, minority members of Congress got fewer earmarks than the average Republican member of Congress even when Republicans were in the political minority. “Political muscle trumped project merit,” Ellis says.
No amount of reform will fix that. At their core, earmarks are money that the government is spending to support projects that can’t make it on their own merits. If a teapot museum or the refurbishment of Lawrence Welk’s boyhood home was a worthwhile investment, someone in the private sector would have beaten Congress to the punch.
And if a piece of legislation can’t get enough support without bribing backbenchers with piles of taxpayer cash, you have to consider the possibility that the bill doesn’t deserve to pass.