Could Democrats and Republicans both benefit from bringing back earmarks?

Discussions about bringing back earmarks have flared up on Capitol Hill in recent years. Democrats in particular have expressed interest in reviving procedures whereby members of the House of Representatives could have more power to direct appropriations to specific projects in their home districts.

“You just can’t expect somebody over there at OMB, who knows nothing about the areas we represent, to have all the knowledge,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). Some Republicans agree, and argue that Congress needs to reclaim spending authority it has given away to the presidency.

A variety of factors have fueled these conversations, not least the feeling that the House’s 2010 earmark ban has made it harder to craft cross-partisan bargains. President Donald Trump added fuel to the fire by praising earmarks.

The most recent Capitol Hill discussions abruptly ended in February 2020, and the earmark ban was left in place. Many Republicans opposed reviving earmarks—particularly in an election year—and few Democrats spoke forcefully for them.

This decision to continue to forswear earmarks looks myopic, according to a recent analysis by Professor Andrew Sidman of John Jay College. His Pork Barrel Politics: How Government Spending Determines Elections in a Polarized Era (Columbia) shows how both political parties can benefit from giving individual legislators more power to direct spending.

Voters, ideology, and pork barreling

Typically, legislators’ efforts to bring home the bacon has been viewed as rational behavior and distributive politics. An elected official buys votes back home by delivering local benefits to thankful citizens. The conventional wisdom is that it’s an amoral grab and they all do it.

Close observers of Congress know this generalization obscures an awful lot. The Hill has always had paladin legislators who forswear earmarks—usually ostentatiously—in the name of higher principles. And political science research has shown that legislators who are most imperiled tend to rely on earmarks more heavily, whereas legislators in more secure districts often prefer position-taking to bringing home the bacon.

Sidman’s research shows that sending federal benefits to localities has always been an ideological issue. He reminds us that President Andrew Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road bill in 1830 because he viewed federal spending for a purely local project as unconstitutional. Parties have frequently differed over pork barreling’s propriety, and the ends and the extent of its use.

Sidman crunched data from various sources (e.g., the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, the American National Election Studies, DW-Nominate, etc.) over a period of rising polarization (1983 to 2012). He also analyzed public works spending and elections results from 1876 through 2012. The aim is to see, as the book’s title indicates, how pork barrel spending affects reelection.

The top-line results are intriguing. “When polarization is high, incumbents benefit from securing pork consistent with the ideological preferences of their party’s base voters and pay electoral costs for securing pork inconsistent with these preferences.” Democrats benefit from dishing out formula grants, project grants, and direct payments. Republicans fend off challengers with loan and insurance programs. Woe to the elected official who sends home the wrong sort of bacon, as he or she may well find themselves with a competent, well-financed challenger. The results, it is worth mentioning, are consistent with previously published survey research.

Nonetheless, members of both parties do like bringing home the bacon

But when it comes to “defense pork,” Sidman finds a different trend. Democrats and Republicans alike pursue it whether they are polarized or not. In fact, highly polarized legislators distribute military-related benefits for the home districts all the more.

It is no accident that the National Defense Authorization Act, which benefits just about every district in the nation, has sailed through enactment annually for six consecutive decades. Rare is the legislator who stands up and declares, “My district really does not need this military base,” or “My home state refuses to partake of this wasteful weapons-building contract.” On the contrary, they tend to boast about the defense dollars they bring home. That Congress had to establish BRAC commissions and special fast-track voting procedures to enable its members to find ways to trim unneeded military facilities only goes to underscore the electoral potency of congressionally directed defense expenditures.

Notably, the big data aspect of this Sidman’s research leaves obvious exceptions to the findings unexplained. Certainly some righties have done well with non-military distributive pork—Rep. Don Young of Alaska and former member, Ron Paul of Texas, to name just two.

Additionally, Sidman’s focus on the House necessarily leaves the subject of Senate pork-—which always has been plentiful—unaddressed. Former GOP Sen. Thad Cochran was famous for the projects he sent to his home state of Mississippi. He spent 40 years in the Senate after five years in the House. No lily-livered liberal was he. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Robert Byrd directed unbelievable quantities of federal largesse to West Virginia in myriad forms (federal buildings, roads, entitlement benefits, etc.). Byrd served 51 years; only death could remove him from his official perch.

Despite the 2019 “permanent” Senate GOP ban on earmarks, pork barrel goes on. Witness the bevy of directed spending in the $2 trillion CARES COVID-19 relief act. Among them is a regulatory benefit for L’Oreal corporation, which has a plant in Kentucky, home state of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But these are quibbles.

What do these research findings mean for earmarks?

To be clear, Sidman’s subject, pork barrel spending, is broader than earmarks. The latter refers to only one—and historically quite minor—form of congressionally directed spending.

Sidman laments that today’s Congress is less productive than the legislature in the 1980s and 1990s. “[T]he inability or unwillingness of party leaders to trade pork for support has contributed to this dearth of legislative activity.” But he cautions that bringing back earmarks is no magical elixir. “[W]ould members of the Freedom Caucus trade earmarks for votes…? Would Speaker Pelosi even offer earmarks to Republican members? Would Republicans make such a trade, handing Democratic leaders a policy victory?” He is understandably dubious that pork can grease the skids in a polarized Congress.

For sure, earmarks would not have swayed House Republicans to support Obamacare. Nor will earmarks get GOP members behind the Green New Deal.

Most governance issues, however, are not so highly salient and polarized. And as Sidman shows, legislators desperately want to pursue benefits for their constituents no matter the polarization. Directing spending is what legislators do and always have done. A statute passed in the very first Congress directed federal dollars for a pier in Philadelphia—at the urging of Pennsylvania legislators.

Legislators put provisions into tax bills that benefit industries that are concentrated in their districts. Appropriators add language to spending statutes and accompanying reports that steers money to their preferred projects and recipients. Legislators bail out industries who employ their constituents. When Congress “banned earmarks” legislators moved to the less-visible practice of lettermarking to pressure federal agencies to build and upgrade facilities in their districts. And congressmen and their staffs harry bureaucrats to direct agency time and resources to address their constituents’ gripes and issues.

Arguably, Sidman’s analysis indicates that both incumbent Democrats and Republicans would see an advantage in allowing the earmark ban to expire. Liberal members could steer projects to their home districts, and conservatives could direct loans back home and denounce Democrats for being porkers. Each representative, regardless of party, would be free to direct or not direct spending as he or she sees fit.

And who knows, perhaps along the way, members might be incentivized to work across the aisle on nonpolarized issues a bit more.

This piece previously appeared on the Brookings’ FixGov blog.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations