I recently saw an article about the reintroduction of ‘earmarking’ in Congress.
Earmarking, or what often is mistakenly referred to as pork-barrel spending, is an archaic tool of U.S. legislative bodies by which support for legislation is garnered through appropriating spending for projects, which may be related to the legislation at issue tangentially. This tool has been condemned by many as a quintessential example of government waste, an evil that raises the deficit while providing an irresistible opportunity for corruption. Yet, rules have been implemented that aim to prevent corruption, and while earmarking undoubtedly diverts taxpayer money to projects that may not be exigent, earmarking does serve a purpose.
In the current political climate, legislation faces a much more arduous journey to passage than in the past. As parties entrench along ideological lines, politicians are significantly more likely to reject any proposal that has the backing of the opposition party, which has led American politics to become a zero-sum game.
Often, those who believe that any compromise with the opposition party will cause the country to spiral into theocracy or a socialist nation are the same who claim that the Founding Fathers would never stoop to such tactics. On the contrary, this is demonstrably false. For example, the reason that the seat of our government is located in a repurposed swamp is because three people, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, sat down and made a compromise. This compromise consisted of the former trading the assumption of states’ debts for the latter’s support for a “southern” capital. This is because the founders understood democracy only operates through compromise.
Historically, earmark spending impacted the federal deficit in an almost negligible degree. The Brookings Institution found that earmark spending accounted for roughly 1% of all federal discretionary spending, which, in turn, makes up around 35% of all federal spending.
Large projects, on the other hand, such as counterterrorism effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, cost the American taxpayer around $4 trillion dollars, which is equivalent to a little less than the entire federal budget for FY2019. Moreover, the money spent on earmarks often finds its way to projects that address district-specific needs, which often are vying for attention with similar projects across the country, so it is somewhat difficult to say this spending is entirely wasteful. But perhaps the true value of the earmark is not the projects that are completed or the jobs that are created.
Since the ban on earmarks put in place in 2011, legislation has faced difficulty finding its way to the president’s desk. For example, the 106th Congress (1999-2000) enacted roughly 6% of legislation introduced, a number equal to the combined efforts of the 115th (2017-2019) and the 116th (2019-2021) Congresses. These figures are not unique to Congress during the time of President Donald Trump; no Congress since the ban on earmarks has enacted more than 3% of the legislation introduced.
Maybe earmarks, no matter how many restrictions can be implemented to curb corruption, are not the best means by which we can pass needed legislation, and maybe there are other things that can be done to incentivize the needed cooperation essential to a functioning representative democracy.
If that is true, then we – citizens, politicians and advocates – should be working on a new tool for legislators that may help them find common ground to solve problems. In the meantime, however, let’s see if we can at least begin to thaw the icy divide by allowing legislators to support opposition legislation for the upshot of funding projects that address district needs.
• Zack Krizel, originally from Utica, now lives in Washington, D.C., while completing law school with an interest in practicing constitutional law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.