Bringing back earmarks could grease the wheels for getting bills passed
© Greg Nash

Congress is having a hard time passing bills these days. From the record-low number of laws being enacted, to Republicans’ inability to follow through on most of their promises, to the seven-months-late passage of the 2018 budget, Congress’ productivity is at an all-time low.

No single factor is responsible for this, of course. But there is a move Congress can make to help address the problem. Today’s congressional leaders are missing a tool that, in the past, helped get reluctant members to vote for bills. That tool is the earmark.

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Earmarks are spending projects, which are requested by individual members and included in bills without getting voted on by other members. They have a bad reputation, but they serve an important purpose. Earmarks give members of Congress “skin in the game” when deciding how to vote on big bills with major national implications.

Inevitably, these bills present dilemmas for members of Congress. They’re big and complex, and one section or another will anger a segment of voters in the district. Sure, passing the bill makes the government run smoothly (or when it comes to annual budget bills, ensures that the government can run at all), but the sad fact is that doing the important work of government doesn’t get a member of Congress reelected. Not angering your voters does.

Voting yes on these big bills is easier when there’s something in there to sweeten the pot - something visible, which the member can point to and claim credit for. That’s where earmarks come in. Nothing makes a bill more palatable to voters than when it sends home some money for new radio equipment for first responders, upgrading the barracks at the local army base, establishing a chapter for a Boys and Girls Club or maintaining a domestic violence shelter.

Believe it or not, these are the kinds of things most earmarks fund. The “Bridge to Nowhere” and a few other bad apples may have gotten all the press, but earmarks were designed to be tied to constituency concerns and make voters happy.  

The typical earmark got funded only after a constituent or group in the district approached their Congress member to request funding for a local project. The member would sort through all the requests they got, and pick some to forward to the powerful chairs of Appropriations subcommittees, who ultimately decided which ones got funded.

This constituent-rooted system was borne out in the types of earmarks that got funded. In peer-reviewed research, I found that - before Congress did away with earmarks in 2011 - members tended to procure earmarks that were good fits for their district. Districts with lots of farmers got agriculture-related earmarks; districts with large military bases got defense-related earmarks, and so forth. And most of the projects that got funded were for community projects that helped people.

Of course, there was some politics in involved. Well-placed, powerful members definitely got more earmarks than the rank-and-file, but that’s not unusual. You see the same pattern in anything that Congress does – that’s what makes those members well-placed and powerful. Plus, in one important way there was actually less political rancor over earmarks than other congressional activities – this was a strictly bipartisan process. Everybody who wanted earmarks got at least something, no matter what party they were in.

Another point in earmarks’ favor is that they tend to be relatively cheap. Anti-earmark activists paint them as budget-busting wastes of money that contribute to the deficit, but this is simply not true. In 2011 when earmarks were at their peak, the total cost of every earmark combined was less than half a percent of the federal budget.

This is a small price to pay for the good that earmarks do -greasing the wheels for larger, more important bills to pass. And Congress needs some grease. This year, Congress didn’t pass a comprehensive budget until March, even though the fiscal year began the previous September. This continues a recent pattern: every year Congress is supposed to pass 12 spending bill prior to Oct. 1 to fund the government. Over the past seven years, that’s 84 bills Congress was supposed to have dealt with. Of those 84, one of them passed on schedule.

It’s not a coincidence that seven years ago is when Congress changed their internal rules to do away with earmarks.

We’d all like politicians to throw reelection to the wind and just do what’s right, but that’s not realistic. We’d all like businesses to throw profit to the wind and just do what’s right, but then they wouldn’t be companies, they’d be charities. Same with politicians – by definition they have to win reelection. Earmarks let us harness that incentive to get bills passed.

Jeffrey Lazarus is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University.