Earmarks Are Good

Why shouldn’t Democrats curry Joe Manchin’s favor with a few sky bridges and concert halls?

Pig snouts colored like the American flag
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy.

You may have seen this meme going around: a futuristic, utopian rendering of a city with gleaming skyscrapers, jet-suited commuters, and hanging gardens. The caption: “West Virginia after we’re done bribing Joe Manchin.”

January’s Georgia runoff elections delivered Democrats the most tenuous possible control of the Senate, and gave Manchin, the most conservative member of the caucus, a functional veto over legislation. A $15 minimum wage, $2,000 checks, universal preschool, green-jobs initiatives: The question is not whether elected Democrats want them, but whether they can get the senator from West Virginia to support their inclusion in the handful of budget reconciliation bills they will be able to get through Congress. Why shouldn’t Democrats curry his favor with a few sky bridges and concert halls?

They should, despite the fact that earmarks—formally known as congressionally directed spending, informally known as pork—have a tarnished reputation and have disappeared from policy making. In 2010, the Tea Party secured a ban on earmarks. But getting rid of them did not tamp down government spending, as the Tea Party wanted. And it had unintended consequences, including making it that much harder for Congress to get anything done.

Pushing for an earmark moratorium a decade ago, politicians on both sides of the aisle tended to make two arguments. The first had to do with cost and waste. Fiscal hawks railed against earmarks as expensive: The 9,129 pork-barrel projects approved for fiscal year 2010 cost something like $17 billion. Worse, earmarks sometimes financed unnecessary or even ridiculous-seeming vanity projects: bridges to nowhere, teapot museums, indoor rain forests.

The second argument had to do with process and good governance. In the 1990s and 2000s, earmarks were implicated in any number of scandals; unscrupulous politicians traded them for campaign contributions or directed projects to friends in exchange for kickbacks. Outright fraud aside, members’ ability to create pork projects made them bigger, more pliable marks for lobbyists. Moreover, the process could be unfair, directing money to long-tenured members’ districts and disadvantaging districts represented by Black or Latino members.

But earmarks were never a cause of government bloat or a driver of the federal debt. At its peak, pork-barrel spending made up a tiny sliver of the government budget. Earmarks were never that wasteful either. Most of the money went to reasonable projects—bridges, community centers, worker-training programs, schools. Those are the kinds of things the government exists to finance. Voters like them, communities need them, and members of Congress, with their intimate knowledge of their district, are often pretty good at knowing where to put them.

The ban, moreover, gave the executive branch more control over spending. In that way, Congress ended up shirking its constitutional duty to maintain the power of the purse. “Eliminating earmarking is a serious abdication of power by Congress which empowers a branch of government beyond what the Founders intended,” according to John Hudak of the Brookings Institution.

The process and fairness problems were real, but Congress had instituted a series of reforms in the George W. Bush years that had gotten rid of the worst, most fraudulent abuses: Members had to make their requests public, among other changes. Now some members want to bring back earmarks with plenty of guardrails, perhaps as a formal “community-focused grant” program with plenty of transparency about who is getting what for whom. The new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have both signaled their support.

That would be a good thing. Since the demise of the earmark, both Republicans and Democrats have voiced their quiet lamentations about the lost opportunities to secure money for needed projects and to win over their colleagues’ votes. Even former Speaker of the House John Boehner—who, as a matter of principle, never sought or got an earmark for his Ohio district—has bemoaned the loss, saying that a little pork would help “herd the cats” on the Hill.

Congress needs all the help it can get with herding cats. Polarization, gerrymandering, the nationalization of politics, and the abuse of the filibuster, among other factors, have made it harder for substantive legislation to pass through both chambers. Members in both parties complain that nothing big gets done anymore, and that representatives are less willing to compromise and trade favors than they used to be.

Earmarks would not fix everything—structural reforms are desperately needed—but they might help a bit on the margins, making it more likely that moderate Democrats will vote with their caucus and making it more possible for moderate Republicans to cross over the aisle. For a better-functioning, more powerful legislature, some jet packs for West Virginians would be a small price to pay.