Earmarks: Should they be restored?
Cowboy poetry gatherings in Nevada. North Carolina’s teapot museum. The Montana Sheep Institute. Earmarks—funding for lawmakers’ pet projects, stuffed into larger federal legislation—yielded some memorable “government boondoggles” before they were banned by Congress in 2011, said Alan Rappeport in The New York Times. Well, President Trump “wants to bring them back.” Speaking to lawmakers last week, the former businessman said he thought ending the ban on so-called pork barrel spending might help grease the wheels of bipartisan compromise and ease Washington’s current legislative gridlock. He’s not alone. The House Rules Committee had public hearings on the issue scheduled for this week. Rightly so, said Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg.com. Earmarks enabled congressional leaders to offer “recalcitrant representatives” on both sides of the aisle an incentive to vote for a bill they’d otherwise reject. In 2010, these “handouts” cost only about $16 billion, “less than 1 percent of total federal spending.” A little bit of pork is a small price to pay for a functioning government.
That all sounds good in theory, said Jay Cost in NationalReview.com. In practice, earmarks often became a source of serious corruption, tempting legislators “to insert spending that helps their donors or even themselves.” In 2005, for example, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) was convicted of accepting more than $2 million in bribes from companies that richly benefited from his earmarks. What’s more, when lawmakers know they can trade their votes for legal bribes, they “hold back their support” for legislation—which was why the number of earmarks soared from fewer than 2,000 a year in the 1990s to about 10,000 in 2010. Pork barrel spending was also spectacularly wasteful, said Eric Boehm in Reason.com. The “most infamous earmark of all,” the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, was a $400 million project to “link an island with 50 residents to mainland Alaska.” If legislation can’t pass without funding for teapot museums, then maybe “the bill doesn’t deserve to pass.”
You can understand why “a deal maker like Trump” would find earmarks “appealing as a negotiating aid,” said Philip Wegmann in the Washington Examiner. But the president won office promising to “drain the swamp”—and pork barrel spending is about as swampy as it gets. For Republicans to begin an election year by restoring a practice so symbolic of “greed,” would be a catastrophic political error.