Over in the New York Times, Carl Hulse writes notes that one of the many unique aspects of this year’s unfolding budget clash is that this will be first budget battle without earmarks.
Generally, the disappearance of earmarks been seen as positive development, since everybody loves to hate earmarks. But say all you want about earmarks being wasteful or corrupt (even though that’s a debatable claim), they helped broker compromise. By giving enough members a stake in an omnibus appropriation bill, earmarks were mechanism whereby leaders could assemble a winning coalition to pass a budget bill, a powerful tool to avoid a government shutdown.
Here’s Diana Evans, a professor of political science at Trinity College, from a book about earmarks called Greasing the Wheels:
Pork barrel benefits, the most reviled of Congress’s legislative products, are used by policy coalition leaders to produce the type of policy that is most admired: general interest legislation. This book makes the case that buying votes with pork is an important way in which Congress solves its well-known collective action problem.
The reality, as we see it, is that without earmarks it will be much more difficult to get moderate and liberal members to go along with spending cuts that may be necessary to reduce the deficit – one of the major goals of the tea party movement. By eliminating earmarks, tea party supporters may have lost one of their most effective tools for building coalitions to make painful cuts in spending. Earmarks can be viewed as the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter medicine of deficit reduction go down; without earmarked projects, enacting tough legislation will be even more difficult.
(Frisch and Kelly are the authors of a book called Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for Democracy.)
Remember, even at their height, earmarks accounted for roughly two percent of all appropriations expenditures. And that two percent hasn’t necessarily been cut out of the budget – it’s just been transferred the executive branch for allocation instead of being Congressionally-directed.
Now, I understand that there were some lobbying abuses in the world of earmarks, but my sense is that most offices were actually remarkably transparent about their earmarks (and indeed happy to brag about their projects). I never saw any reason for banning them and thought it was all silly red-herring type politics that distracted us from more difficult but far more consequential fights over entitlements.
Maybe the folks in Congress will figure out how to come to some sort of eventual budget agreement without a bunch of earmarks to grease the wheels, and we’ll all be better off because of it. But I’m beginning to wonder if, when budget negotiations grind to a standstill, the good folks running Congress might wish that they hadn’t prevented themselves from sweetening the pot with a few special district spending programs.