Would bringing back pork-barrel spending end government shutdowns?

For eight years, Congress has banned the use of earmarks, otherwise known as “pork-barrel spending.” Earmarks paid for pet projects of legislators back in their districts, as a way of encouraging those officials’ votes for a spending bill.

But earmarks were seen by many members of the public as wasteful and distasteful. Even some lawmakers didn’t like them.

“Earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, in 2007.

But now, in the middle of one of the longest federal government shutdowns on record, Rep. Nita Lowey, the new chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, made a bold statement: She wants to bring back pork-barrel spending in order to make passing appropriations bills easier.

“I would be supportive of earmarks,” Lowey, a Democrat from New York, told Politico. “I think there is a way to do it.”

Greasing the wheels – maybe

Earmarks would not have solved the current government shutdown, which is the result of an impasse between congressional Democrats and President Trump over funding the president’s border wall.

But Lowey’s not alone in her concern with Congress’ inability to pass spending bills on schedule. That difficulty, which has ended in several government shutdowns in the last decade, has produced unrelenting criticism by commentators and members of Congress alike.

A return to earmarking – for projects ranging from new bridges to museum funding to renewable energy research, tailored for individual members’ districts – would require lifting a 2011 moratorium imposed on the practice.

I have studied the effect of pork-barrel spending on passing spending bills. Although earmarks are worth reconsidering as a way of greasing the legislative wheels, I would argue that the case for them is mixed.

Pro-earmark arguments have come from both parties. The supporters include Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as well as President Trump.

Simultaneously, pressure from House Republicans led former Speaker Paul Ryan to allow hearings to consider ending the 2011 earmark moratorium.

Prior to 2011, these earmarks were, with a few exceptions, regularly, and until 2006, in increasingly large numbers, put into appropriations bills as well as highway reauthorizations to help smooth the way to passage.

Pork helps move things along

My own research, as well as that of Frances Lee of the University of Maryland, shows that earmarks helped transportation committee leaders pass three massive highway bills, overcoming significant policy controversies surrounding each bill. I also found that earmarks were often helpful in passing appropriations bills.

Nevertheless, to opponents, earmarks remain pork-barrel projects that are rife with waste and reek of corruption. Former Sen. Clare McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, called earmarks “the Washington swamp creature that just never seems to die.”

To supporters, on the other hand, earmarks are a legitimate use of Congress’ constitutionally mandated power of the purse, which, not incidentally, may help members’ political careers.

Earmark proponents say a return to the practice could remedy the long-running difficulty of passing appropriations bills in a carefully considered, transparent manner.

What did we spend that money for?

In the normal appropriations process, Congress would pass 12 individual spending bills each year, a process designed to give members of Congress a chance to examine the spending in each bill before voting.

The reality is far different.

Data compiled by the Pew Research Center show that between the 2011 earmark moratorium and fiscal year 2018, only one individual appropriations bill was enacted, rather than the 84 appropriations bills Congress should have passed.

The record was somewhat better last year, when five of the 12 bills became law. The remaining seven Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bills have been held up by the president’s insistence on funding for a border wall in the Homeland Security bill.

Pork-barrel spending can help move things along. Shutterstock
Instead of using the process that encourages careful consideration of individual spending items, Congress has funded government agencies in massive omnibus appropriations bills or full-year continuing resolutions. These bills make it virtually impossible for members to know what they are voting for.

This breakdown in the appropriations process coincides neatly with the earmark moratorium.

However, the process did not always go smoothly before the moratorium either. The large increase between 1991 and 2006 in the cost of earmarks, from $3.1 billion to $29 billion, did not ensure the passage of stand-alone appropriations bills.