Pursuing earmarks at the expense of pursuing policy

 Image source:  Bloomberg
Image source: Bloomberg

By Scott M. Guenther and David M. Searle

In early January, President Trump floated the idea of bringing back earmarks to Congress, recalling before a group of House and Senate leaders, “there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.” Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks have not paved the way for reinstating earmarks, but his comments echo a recent romanticizing of them.

Increasingly, earmarks are portrayed as the grease of the legislative machine that made lawmaking easier. With earmarks, so the logic goes, chamber leaders could trade money for legislators’ pet projects in exchange for their votes. But any discussion of bringing back earmarks should be clear about the measurable consequences that also deserve our attention. 

An underappreciated consequence of earmarks is the cost in time and attention members spent directing their limited staff and resources to secure pork for their districts. As we show in a new paper (forthcoming in American Politics Research), success in securing earmarks often comes at the expense of attention to policy making.

Even after accounting for the most common explanations for why legislators bring home earmarks, we show that engagement and success in the policy-making process is among the strongest predictors for the share of earmarks a member brings home. Those who focus on drafting and pushing legislation bring home fewer earmarks. Thought of differently, members who really bring home the bacon end up skimping on their legislative responsibilities.

The exact opposite prediction – that legislators who win in one domain (earmarks) are successful in another (passing legislation) – is compelling, but inaccurate. Following the logic of those who romanticize the era of earmarks, members who have the most control over doling out earmarks, such as appropriators, should be more effective in moving their legislative initiatives forward. Our findings show the opposite to be true.  

How We Did Our Research

To test the idea that there is a tradeoff between successful earmarking and policymaking, we first needed to come up with effective ways to measure earmark and legislative effort. To measure earmark success, we took advantage of post-Jack Abramoff transparency laws requiring the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to publish a database of all awarded earmarks. The OMB data, which offers a complete picture of the number of earmarks each legislator sponsored, the amounts, and cosponsoring legislators, was used to calculate each legislator’s earmark share.

We measured the effort members exert in the policy process in a host of different ways: the number of  bills a member introduced that were reported from committee and passed on the floor, the frequency of member floor speeches, and a unique calculation of a legislator’s connectedness using bill cosponsorships. Each of the measures have their advantages and disadvantages, but they all point in the same direction – the more activity we observed on this front,  the fewer earmark dollars a legislator brought home. Our last measure of policy-making effort, legislator connectedness through cosponsorships, is a key innovation that merits further explanation. 

An ongoing problem with studying legislator effectiveness is that a member’s ability to move  bills forward  is highly dependent on whether their party wants that bill (and legislator) to succeed. Unsurprisingly, some of the most “effective” legislators (based on bills passed) are majority party members facing tough elections in the fall. Most of their success has less to do with their effectiveness as vulnerable majority party incumbents, and more to do with their party wanting to get them reelected. 

Connectedness scores help get around the issue of parties picking the winners. Cosponsorship data helps measure all the effort legislators take to make their bills attractive early in the process. Without diving into the math, members receive higher connectedness scores when they are able to attract an ideologically broad coalition of sponsors, something previous research shows increases the viability of legislation. Although cosponsoring a bill requires virtually no effort on the part of a legislator, the ability to bring together a diverse and robust coalition is far from easy.

Highly connected legislators are more effective in pushing their bills forward; if their bills reach the floor, they generally receive wider support. However, there is a cost to this effort. The most active policy makers receive $12 million less in earmarks than their poorly connected colleagues. As the figure below shows, that differential success is a much bigger factor than typical explanations for why members receive earmarks – like seniority and electoral vulnerability.

Limited resources force legislators to make trade-offs in how they allocate their efforts between legislative activities. Our work shows that pursuing earmarks comes at the expense of pursuing policy. Legislators choose to pursue different strategies in Washington for a variety of different reasons, but one thing should be clear. Removing the availability of earmarks forces legislators to focus on alternative opportunities. The challenge now is how to make legislating more attractive than other alternatives.

Scott M. Guenther is a postdoctoral research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and David M. Searle is a postdoctoral research scholar at Arizona State University.