One of former House Speaker John Boehner’s proudest accomplishments was doing away with directed federal spending in the appropriations process. Known as “earmarks” to some and as “pork” to those who took a less favorable view, these were provisions lawmakers inserted into federal law that required the government to fund specific projects, typically in their home districts.
Boehner was a driving force in eliminating the process, and on multiple occasions during his years running the House he resisted any suggestion that it should be brought back. “As long as I’m Speaker, there will be no earmarks,” he said repeatedly.
Well, Boehner isn’t speaker anymore and one political scientist, in a recent paper prepared for the Brookings Institution, thinks that bringing back earmarks, at least in a limited fashion, might help restore some sanity to the federal budget and appropriations process.
“The backlash against earmarking was rooted in the fact that the number of earmarks rose rapidly from the 1990s to the early 2000s,” wrote Peter C. Hanson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. “Appropriators complained that they were overwhelmed with requests and budget hawks claimed earmarks were wasteful spending.
“A limited restoration of earmarks could satisfy both concerns. Member requests could be capped to prevent appropriators from being flooded with requests. Members have historically understood earmarks to be in their re-election interest, and would likely do so again as long as the number of requests is effectively managed.”
The thinking among political scientists has long been that earmarks are a potent tool for keeping order in Congress. Leadership can use them as both a carrot, to persuade lawmakers to cooperate on a difficult vote by promising them something for their constituents, and as a stick, to punish obstructionist lawmakers by withholding federal spending that might otherwise have been funneled to their districts.
There is also a credible argument to be made that when it comes to directing federal spending, a lawmaker who spends time on the ground in his or her state or district might have a better sense of taxpayers’ wants and needs than bureaucrats in faraway Washington, D.C. (The argument against this, of course, is typified by wasteful projects, like the legendary “bridge to nowhere” that was used by reformers as a prime example of why earmarks needed to be eliminated.)
As Congress heads toward a December 11 deadline to pass appropriations bills that will allow the government to keep operating, Boehner’s replacement as speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will be facing many of the same challenges his predecessor did. His party has a majority in the House, but many of his members are not interested in voting for bills that increase federal spending, or insist that they will only do so if they are paired with highly controversial legislation – such as defunding Planned Parenthood, or cutting aid to Syrian refugees.
These are the kind of difficult votes, Hanson argues, that earmarking used to help with.
“The ban on earmarking in appropriations bills has had the unintended effect of making it harder to pass this vital legislation,” he writes. “Restoring limited earmarking could create an important tool for coalition building, thus facilitating passage of appropriations bills.”
Ryan swore off earmarks in 2008, and has shown no sign or proposing their return in this session of Congress, but in the years before they became a cause célèbre in the conservative movement, he wasn’t shy about using them to direct spending to his district.
If members on his party’s right flank decide to make his tenure as speaker as challenging as they made Boehner’s, the old carrot and stick might start looking pretty attractive to the man from Wisconsin.