Why earmarks hinder Congress

Letters to the Editor for Dec. 8, 2014 weekly magazine:

Alexander and Ellis: Earmarks aren’t a silver-bullet solution to gridlock, and they wouldn’t alleviate the stark ideological divisions in Congress.

Evan Vucci/AP
A view of the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 in Washington.

Why earmarks hinder Congress

In regard to the Nov. 3 cover story, “How to get Congress running again”: Your contributors offered many sensible proposals to “fix” Congress. However, the suggestion to bring back earmarks, the narrow provisions lawmakers slipped into legislation to fund projects or companies back home, misses the mark. Earmarks aren’t a silver-bullet solution to gridlock, and they wouldn’t alleviate the stark ideological divisions in Congress.

The history of earmarks shows that earmarks beget earmarks – and thus diversion of funds from priority projects to less critical ones and an increase in lobbyists and campaign cash. 

Of course, promises of support for various initiatives are a dealmaking tool. But earmarks – as defined by Congress – are only one of the many ways to horse-trade, and their prominence in legislation is a more recent phenomenon. A review of spending bills from decades ago reveals that there were relatively few earmarks until the boom years after 1996. In the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 1970 there were a dozen earmarks. The same bill in fiscal year 1980 had 62, and by 2006 there were 2,879. 

Earmark decisions were made on the basis of political muscle, not project merit. In the 2005 transportation bill, perhaps the pinnacle of earmarks, the amount of earmark cash lawmakers received almost directly correlated with their proximity to power. This has significant costs to the country. The Department of Transportation inspector general found that “Many earmarked projects considered by the [state] agencies as low priority are being funded over higher priority, non-earmarked projects.” That means important infrastructure investments were being sidelined.

As your contributors point out – legislating is hard work. Earmarks distract from that work and focus attention on one small part of the budget, making them a particularly flawed tool for dealmaking. Congress has ample back rooms and opportunity to horse-trade without inserting thousands of special interest provisions into legislation. Lawmakers certainly could bring back earmarks. Just don’t expect them to make Congress work any better.

Ryan Alexander and Steve Ellis
Taxpayers for Common Sense

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.