Remember earmarks, those infamous, special-interest spending provisions party leaders used to sprinkle over legislation like sugar to get representatives and senators to hold their noses and vote yes on bills they would otherwise oppose?
You probably haven’t heard about earmarks lately, thank goodness. Republicans banned them when the Tea Party class came to Washington in 2010 opposed to the crony corruption. Who can forget pork-barrel embarrassments like the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the “Monuments to Me” projects that members got named after themselves, or the turtle tunnel in Florida (yes, it’s a tunnel for turtles)? Earmarks were everything Americans couldn’t stand about Washington – corrupt, wasteful, entitled, and out of touch.
But on Thursday, a House committee will hold a hearing to see about bringing them back. Earmarks were the original Swamp Thing, and just like in Hollywood, Washington is never above an ill-advised sequel to make a quick buck.
Earmark fans never left Washington, of course. They’ve just been laying low, waiting for memories of their waste and abuse to fade. And seven years on, they think they have found a nifty argument to carry pork-barrel spending back into polite company. That argument is the dysfunction in Congress over the last seven years. “See,” they say, “Congress can’t get anything done anymore. Earmarks may not be great, but they are the industrial lubricant of the sausage-making factory that is Congress, and bringing them back will get the machine working properly again.”
Like many terrible political arguments, it’s superficially appealing. Congress is indeed dysfunctional today. And earmarks probably would make it easier for party leaders to buy the votes they need to pass the bills they write. But the real problem here is this conceit that party leaders have a natural mandate to exclusively write legislation.
There was a time when one could reasonably argue that, between them, Republican and Democratic elites represented the public. But today, both parties are distrusted, both by their own members and the growing number of independents who refuse to associate with either party. And the institution where they supposedly do their representing, Congress, is utterly despised. That’s not because of a lack of earmarks. It’s because of a well-deserved lack of trust in our governing institutions, and the people who run them.
Earmarks can’t bring back the trust Congress has squandered. Only transparency and accountability can do that.
The fight over earmarks is really a fight over two competing visions of how Congress should govern. The Washington establishment likes the current system where party leaders negotiate and write bills behind closed doors, often orchestrating a legislative cliff so that members are left with a binary choice between two terrible options. This system keeps the campaign and lobbying cash flowing through leadership offices and their alumni on K Street. The tough decisions are made in secret without any accountability. But no one likes the current arrangement of government-by-cliff. So, the swamp hopes, all that is needed is a little earmark lubricant to keep the game going.
But the fact is that this corrupt system excludes all but a handful of representatives and senators, and so effectively disenfranchises hundreds of millions of Americans. Bringing back earmarks will only make that situation worse.
The alternative system would be one of transparency, decentralization, and accountability. Representatives and senators would write legislation collaboratively, in the open, forging popular compromises and taking tough votes. Anytime someone says, “What we really need to do is get everyone in a room to hammer out the details,” remember, the Constitution provides for two such rooms: the House and Senate chambers. The reason Congress doesn’t work today is that both party establishments are afraid of the electoral consequences of the public actually seeing a free-wheeling debate they can’t control.
The path of transparency and accountability would require members to do the hard work of learning about issues and forming and defending coherent positions. It would be far easier to just let leadership do all the thinking for them and accept the occasional earmark they can tout to constituents back home.
But this superficially easy path is what has led us to the highly dysfunctional and divisive status quo. Earmarks would make life easier for politicians, but worse for the country. That Washington is even considering such a bargain explains why Congress is held in such disdain.
Eventually, Congress will reform itself, and so restore itself to its proper role in the federal government and in American life. Earmarks are just one more bad idea we need to discard before we finally face the truth and do our jobs.
Just say no to the return of Swamp Thing.
Op-ed originally published in the Washington Examiner