No, Reviving Earmarks won’t Revitalize our Democracy

In a recent piece in The Atlantic “How American Politics Went Insane,” Jonathan Rauch argues that the bizarre 2016 cycle is essentially the consequence of over-reforming Washington. The problem, according to Rauch, is that when you try to take the politics out of politics nothing gets done. The solution? Bring back pork. Rauch writes:

“For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district. Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much, and it helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade: You support my pork, and I’ll support yours. Also, because pork was dispensed by powerful appropriations committees with input from senior congressional leaders, it provided a handy way for the leadership to buy votes and reward loyalists …”

“Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending – put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business. But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all. The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation – by favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between.”

Rauch’s analysis is misguided but conservatives ignore his argument at their peril.

Rauch’s analysis is misguided but conservatives ignore his argument at their peril

Let’s look at Rauch’s claims:

1. “For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district”

Reality: Not really. While politics and parochialism have always been a part of government, the earmark favor factory – which was the target of what Rauch would call our “jihad” – was a recent invention. In 1982, President Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it contained 121 earmarks. By 1994, the number of earmarks ballooned to 4,126 before peaking in 2006 at 15,877.

2. “Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much”

Reality: Pork made everything cost more. History has been kind to former Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) 2003 claim that earmarks were the “gateway drug” to Washington’s spending addiction. As the number of earmarks increased so did spending. Between 1982 and 2006 the national debt went from $1 trillion to $8.5 trillion.

When the earmark ban went into effect in 2010, taxpayers witnessed a miracle when discretionary spending started to decline. In the five years before the earmark ban (2005-2010), discretionary spending increased from 1.086 trillion to 1.325 trillion. After the earmark ban (2010-2015) discretionary spending decreased from 1.325 trillion to 1.015 trillion. (Source: White House budget historical tables – Table 8.8)

The earmark ban itself didn’t cause this decline. The under-appreciated budget sequestration initiated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 was a more direct cause but the spirit of Coburn’s “gateway drug” theory was correct. When the upward pressure of earmarking was removed, spending was easier to control. Not only that, with members coming out of detox, they were able to focus on more serious reform projects like the safety net reforms outlined in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Roadmap.

When the upward pressure of earmarking was removed, spending was easier to control

3. “[Pork] helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade”

Reality: Pork became a currency of corruption, as Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) noted, that hurt the American economy and the undermined the public’s confidence in Congress.

In 2010, Harvard Business School published a study that showed that pork actually hurts business at home by displacing local private sector spending and investment. This effect was more pronounced in districts represented by members with seniority – the very members who were supposedly best positioned to “help” their states by bringing home the bacon.

In 2007, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General concluded that pork does, in fact, divert finite funds away from higher priority projects that promote economic growth and public safety (i.e. necessary roads and bridge repair).

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Still, Rauch is right that Congress and the President aren’t solving problems and “getting things done.” But appealing to nostalgia and pushing for the revival of corrupt practices isn’t the answer. The changes we’re experiencing are largely driven by technology (the internet and social media) and deeper cultural trends (identity politics and postmodernism) that demonize compromise and make evidence-based problem solving extremely difficult. Bringing back pork won’t cure the body politics’ inability to metabolize dissent.

Appealing to nostalgia and pushing for the revival of corrupt practices isn’t the answer

It’s important to note, as Yuval Levin argues, that our founders did envision a mediating institution between individuals and government: civil society – families, communities, faith-based groups, associations, etc. that produce stronger glue than any earmark favor factory run by politicians and lobbyists. The question Rauch is really asking is whether our democracy can survive the democratization of democracy. The rise of Trump and Sanders suggest America may be going through its own populist Arab Spring that is feeling more and more like winter.

While Congress can’t fix the culture it can fix its culture and take modest steps to restore confidence. The House GOP is doing an admirable job of detailing specific solutions with its “A Better Way” agenda but Congress urgently needs to demonstrate it can do the little things like operate under regular order and pass fiscally-responsible spending bills without earmarks. If it doesn’t America may be headed for a structurally deficient Bridge to Nowhere.

The irony Rauch misses is the earmark fight itself provides a template for where politics needs to go post-2016. Coburn, Flake, McCain and others understood the public was angry and disillusioned so they channeled that angst into a constructive cause that produced positive incremental change. Rebuilding the earmark favor factory and asking the next generation to pay for it isn’t the answer.

John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.