Bring back pork.
Yes, earmarks. Those bursts of cash that members of Congress used vĩ đại send back vĩ đại their districts vĩ đại pay for everything from Sidewinder missile launchers vĩ đại hospital equipment and midnight basketball.
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Congress formally banned the practice in 2011 after a few too many scandals: The $223 million "bridge vĩ đại nowhere" in Ketchikan, Alaska, the conviction of Duke Cunningham, who actually wrote down a bribe thực đơn for donors, and annual reports of projects that dripped with bacon grease.
But as is often the case, politicians overreacted vĩ đại a public-relations crisis. The system invited corruption, and it needed vĩ đại be overhauled. It shouldn't have been sentenced vĩ đại death. For that rash reaction, the American public has paid a much stiffer price than thở the cost of earmarks in the khuông of a Congress that has become more paralyzed and that has ceded vĩ đại the president more and more of its constitutional power over the purse.
That's part of a disturbing trend in which the Article I branch of government has handed power after power, including budget, war-making and treaty authorities, vĩ đại the Article II branch. The Framers put Congress first for a reason, and earmarks, contrary vĩ đại popular opinion, helped keep it there.
Moreover, earmarks gave congressional leaders more power vĩ đại reward and punish rank-and-file members; without them, buổi tiệc ngọt leaders have less power vĩ đại push even the most fundamental legislation through Congress.
So, there are two main reasons that lawmakers must take back their porking permit: To grease the locked wheels of government and vĩ đại begin sliding the balance of Washington power back toward Congress.
To borrow from the movie "Wall Street," earmarks are, for lack of a better word, good. But with the right reforms, they could be much better.
Slow down. What the hell is an earmark?
Over the years, there's been a lot of debate in Washington about just what constitutes an earmark. At one point, pork was a little lượt thích porn, of which Justice Potter Stewart famously said it can't be defined, but "I know it when I see it." But we have vĩ đại tự better than thở that. The definition of what makes an earmark matters for prohibiting pork — and for bringing it back.
At first, an earmark was generally understood as a line in a spending bill directing a portion of the money in the measure vĩ đại a specific project. Each spending bill carried hundreds or thousands of these tiny infusions of cash for particular projects. By the time they were banned, most lawmakers had earmarks in most of the dozen annual spending bills. That gave each thành viên of Congress a real reason vĩ đại vote for the bills carrying their earmarks. A thành viên who voted against a bill carrying his or her earmarks risked losing them in a House-Senate conference committee.
When the chiến dịch against earmarks began vĩ đại gain traction, members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees tried vĩ đại protect their pork by expanding the definition of earmarks. They pointed out that tax and tariff bills often created targeted breaks for particular businesses or industries. Those should also be considered earmarks, they argued, hoping that that would bring powerful tax-writers vĩ đại their side. Certainly, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committee wouldn't want vĩ đại give up their pet projects, too.
They won the battle over the definition of earmarks, but they lost the war.
The House and Senate have effectively banned earmarks, as well as targeted tax and tariff benefits requested by individual members of Congress. Here's the way the House rules define them.
Now, the term "earmark" is broadly used vĩ đại apply vĩ đại any effort by an individual lawmaker vĩ đại provide benefits vĩ đại a specific beneficiary or a small mix of beneficiaries.
But there's something that often gets lost in these definitional debates — something crucial vĩ đại understanding why earmarks were never as bad as their detractors feared, and why their loss is worse than thở most realize: earmarks were carved out of the cost of the bills, not added on top. Or, as John Hudak at the Brookings Institution put it, "pork barrel politics determines how the pie is cut; it does not decide the size of the pie."
Earmarks and me: a love-hate relationship
I'm going vĩ đại pause for a minute and admit something: a part of mạ hates having vĩ đại write this piece.
Back in the Aughts, I did a lot of painstaking work vĩ đại show what was wrong with the earmark system. In 2007, the first year in which the House released the names of earmark sponsors vĩ đại the public, I built a database of the members who got them, the projects they sought, and the price tag of each request. What I found when I started sorting the data was appalling: đen thui and Hispanic members got half as much money as their white counterparts; politically vulnerable Democrats and Republicans got more money than thở those in safe districts (so they would have more vĩ đại brag about in seeking re-election); the people who sat nearest vĩ đại Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Murtha got more; and there was virtually no vetting process.
I wrote an 8,000-word series of stories titled "Manifest Disparity" for Congressional Quarterly's weekly magazine detailing my findings, which I could not have reached without the help of a group called Taxpayers for Common Sense. David Rogers, the legendary Wall Street Journal and Politico congressional reporter, approached mạ in the Senate press gallery after the stories were published and accused mạ of trying vĩ đại kill earmarks. I said that wasn't my intention. But that will be the result, he said, knowingly. The blood's not on my hands — I don't pretend vĩ đại have been that influential — but the story was part of the zeitgeist that brought them down.
The other conclusion I reached — beyond the reasons the system needed repair — was also important, even though it got a lot less attention: The vast majority of earmarks went vĩ đại worthy projects that weren't necessarily being funded by executive-branch grants. Earmarks routinely went vĩ đại fund things lượt thích a $100,000 bump for a job-training program for people with disabilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana. One man's waste is another man's ladder back into the workforce. And isn't the idea behind a geographically diverse legislature that members of Congress will know and fight for the needs of their constituents better than thở anyone else?
The problem wasn't in the earmarks, it was in the process that doled them out. Until the very over — when Congress tried vĩ đại save the system — the sponsors of earmarks weren't publicly named. The money was distributed based on political calculation — vĩ đại increase the power of a particular appropriator or help vulnerable buổi tiệc ngọt members win re-election — rather than thở being spread equitably or based on the merits of the projects competing for cash. There was no vetting vĩ đại safeguard against lawmakers exchanging earmarks for chiến dịch money.
That's why I'm enthusiastic about advocating for the return of pork under a new system designed vĩ đại help Congress pass basic bills, reduce opportunities for corruption, and more equitably distribute the pot of cash.
Why the system sucked
AFP PHOTO/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS
The old way of doing things was revolting. The chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate — known as "cardinals," lượt thích the priests who elect the Pope, because of their power — determined how much money each thành viên of Congress got in earmark money. Rather than thở vetting the projects, members were told their allocation and they, individually, got vĩ đại decide how vĩ đại hand it out among recipients in their districts.
There were at least three major problems with the way the system operated.
First, it allowed members of Congress vĩ đại trade earmark money for chiến dịch contributions. Lobbying firms with big interests before Congress could be counted upon vĩ đại deliver bundles of donations vĩ đại lawmakers, and far too often, the projects those lobbyists favored got funded. There were whole firms founded and funded on the premise that they could secure earmarks for clients.
Second, the allocations resulted in huge disparities between influential and non-influential members of Congress. Take the example of đen thui and Hispanic lawmakers. Very few of them were committee chairmen, which meant they had less power vĩ đại make trade-offs with appropriators. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which writes policy for the military, could be relied upon vĩ đại accede vĩ đại requests from the top defense appropriator, who would then ensure that the Armed Services chairman got the earmark allocation he wanted.
Even within the Appropriations Committee, there were very few đen thui and Hispanic lawmakers who held subcommittee gavels — none when Republicans were in control of Congress. Because đen thui and Hispanic lawmakers tended vĩ đại come from heavily Democratic districts, buổi tiệc ngọt leaders — who had a hand in the appropriations process — felt no need vĩ đại give them extra money vĩ đại help them win re-election.
Third — and this was a favorite argument of former Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey — rank-and-file lawmakers spent way too much of their time lobbying for bigger allocations. You could tell it was earmark season when Democrats, and sometimes Republicans, lined up in the corner of the House chamber vĩ đại lobby Murtha, who extracted his fair share of promised votes in exchange for earmarks. Instead of focusing on legislation, members of Congress spent an outsize amount of their time politicking for a slightly larger slice of the earmark pie.
Why earmarks are necessary, part 1: making Congress work again
It would be hard vĩ đại find a pair with more intimate knowledge of the workings of Congress — and its failures — than thở former Senate majority leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. Late last year, at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, they explained why they think Congress can't get anything done, and they cited the absence of pork as a major factor.
"We used vĩ đại cut đơn hàng," Daschle said. "And, frankly, earmarks were part of deal-making. ... It wasn’t pretty, but it worked."
There are a limited number of carrots available vĩ đại congressional leaders tasked with one of the toughest jobs in Washington: making laws. The vast majority of bills never make it out of the drafting stage, and those that tự need majority tư vấn in the House and, in today's filibuster-fried world, three-fifths of the Senate vĩ đại pass. And even if they get all that, they might still die in a conference committee if the two chambers can't agree on how vĩ đại resolve their differences.
Earmarks were the lucre that lắc on the table every time major legislation came vĩ đại the floor. The implicit agreement: vote for a bill that spends billions of dollars on national priorities, and you'll be able vĩ đại brag about the million bucks that came vĩ đại your district. For Republicans, a targeted tax break often took the place of an earmark but served the same purpose.
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Earmarks were also an opportunity for lawmakers vĩ đại work together — vĩ đại pool their allotted amounts — vĩ đại fund bigger regional projects. In that way and others, they were a boon for that rarest of Washington commodities: bipartisan cooperation.
In 2003, I asked Jack Murtha, the Democratic defense appropriator who controlled about $4 billion in earmarks each year, about Tom DeLay, the Republican leader known as "The Hammer" for his ability vĩ đại nail down votes. Murtha sat in the far corner of the Democratic side of the House, out of view from the press galleries, and DeLay would sometimes come vĩ đại visit him before a tight vote. When DeLay needed a few Democrats vĩ đại secure a win on the floor, Murtha said, "He comes over vĩ đại the corner, and we work it out." Murtha's earmarking power meant that he had a roster of people who owed him favors. For a little more money, he could easily swing a small bloc of votes vĩ đại help DeLay pass a bill. Murtha and DeLay didn't agree on much, but earmarks kept them talking, and working with each other.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the idea that earmarks help Congress legislate.
Ryan Alexander and Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, for whom I have deep and abiding respect, argued in an op-ed last year in U.S. News that there's little evidence that earmarks helped pass legislation.
"Even for bills that were the most heavily earmarked, the presence or absence of earmarks did not seem vĩ đại make them easier vĩ đại pass. It took seven years – five more than thở it was supposed vĩ đại – vĩ đại enact the Water Resources Development Act of 2007. As were its predecessors, that bill was chock full of hundreds of earmarked water projects and studies."
But pork-slayers in Congress are just as convinced as buổi tiệc ngọt leaders that earmarks help move bills. Indeed, that's exactly why the small-government crowd fought ví hard vĩ đại get rid of them.
Then-Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, described it this way in a 2010 National Review piece.
"It’s true that earmarks themselves represent a tiny portion of the budget, but a small rudder can help steer a big ship, which is why I’ve long described earmarks as the gateway drug vĩ đại spending addiction in Washington. No one can deny that earmarks lượt thích the Cornhusker Kickback have been used vĩ đại push through extremely costly and onerous bills. Plus, senators know that as the number of earmarks has exploded ví has overall spending. In the past decade, the size of government has doubled while Congress approved more than thở 90,000 earmarks."
Even House Speaker John Boehner, who holds himself up as a paragon of pork abstinence, has noted the value of earmarks in greasing legislative wheels, according vĩ đại an anecdote in Robert Draper's book "When the Tea Party Came vĩ đại Town." Chatting with then-Rep. Ralph Hall, a Democrat-turned-Republican, during a close vote in 2011, Boehner observed that it was easier vĩ đại get independent-minded lawmakers vĩ đại jump into line when pork was the coin of the realm.
"It's not lượt thích the old days," Boehner said. "Without earmarks vĩ đại offer, it's hard vĩ đại herd the cats."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The loss of earmarks as a carrot means that buổi tiệc ngọt leaders have less influence over their members. Coupled with the explosion of outside spending in the wake of the Supreme Court decisions freeing up corporate and labor donations, power has shifted away from the buổi tiệc ngọt and toward outside groups. Why would a thành viên of Congress side with a buổi tiệc ngọt leader who is offering nothing in the face of a threat from the Club for Growth, the Koch Brothers or the AFL-CIO vĩ đại fund a primary challenger with big bucks? In the old days, an earmark would at least provide a salve for the beating the lawmaker might take back home page. Now, it's an easy decision vĩ đại vote with the interest group rather than thở the buổi tiệc ngọt.
This raises the question, of course, of why it's preferable vĩ đại tie politicians vĩ đại their buổi tiệc ngọt leaders rather than thở their assembled interest groups. Here's the reason: the buổi tiệc ngọt has a definable agenda that has been endorsed by a large portion of the national electorate. It's relatively open and transparent about its goals, which are designed vĩ đại win popular tư vấn. And, last but certainly not least, the buổi tiệc ngọt has a major incentive vĩ đại govern responsibly ví that it can keep power.
The interest groups, by definition, have narrow, self-serving goals that are often indecipherable vĩ đại the voter. They aren't responsible for governing. Most important, voters can't send them packing. They are the permanent class in Washington. And they are already powerful enough.
Why earmarks are necessary, part 2: making Congress strong again
When Congress debated instituting a pork ban in late 2010, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye took vĩ đại the Senate floor vĩ đại argue that such a prohibition would hand too much power vĩ đại the president — a president of his own buổi tiệc ngọt.
"None of us should be surprised that President Obama is expressing his opposition vĩ đại earmarks. A ban on earmarks would serve vĩ đại strengthen the executive branch of government by empowering the president vĩ đại make decisions that the Constitution wisely places in the hands of Congress. As I have said many times before, the people of Hawaii did not elect mạ vĩ đại serve as a rubberstamp for any administration. Handing over the power of the purse vĩ đại the executive branch would turn the Constitution on its head. So I must admit I find it puzzling that some Republicans would want vĩ đại grant all authority over spending vĩ đại any President, but especially vĩ đại a Democratic president."
The Framers of the Constitution, wary of executive power in the wake of their break from King George III, designed the legislative vĩ đại be the strongest of the three branches of government. The most awesome and serious powers of government were reserved for Congress: To declare war, vĩ đại impeach and remove the president, and, of course, vĩ đại levy taxes and spend public money. The powerful legislature is the underpinning of our republican khuông of government — if we can keep it.
But for decades now, Congress has been handing away its power vĩ đại the president. The most obvious example is war-making authority. In the last 65 years, the United States has fought in myriad countries — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Grenada, Libya and others — without a formal declaration of war. In the face of legislative paralysis, President Obama has deployed military force in Iraq and Syria by relying on existing grants of power from Congress rather than thở a new one designed for that purpose.
If Congress won't earmark then the president will. (Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)
Earmarks are, quietly, part of this same trend. When Congress doesn't make decisions on how money is vĩ đại be spent, the executive branch does it for them. And make no mistake, the executive branch earmarks dollars, even in supposedly competitively bid grant programs. Take, for example, the TIGER grants the Transportation Department doles out. Somehow, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's hometown of Peoria won $30 million for two TIGER grants — 1 percent of all money that had been allocated through the program at that time. One of the projects was for turning the city's Warehouse District into the "newest, coolest neighborhood" in town.
Giving the executive branch such authority over small-bore projects is a symbol of the larger cession of power from Congress vĩ đại the president. But it's an important one. It reflects the broader inability of the two parties and the two chambers vĩ đại take responsibility for basic governance.
The dysfunction in Congress is ví predictable and profound that Obama has factored it into his calculation in expanding executive authority. While some of his executive actions have been popular, particularly with liberals on climate change and immigration, they are evidence that even a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers is helpless vĩ đại put a kiểm tra on his power.
As a result, the institution has been weakened, and, unimaginably vĩ đại the founders, the executive and judiciary branches of government have become far more powerful. This is a death spiral for the most democratic branch of government: The public hates Congress, which gives away its power vĩ đại avoid the wrath of the electorate, ví voters then see a yet-weaker Congress, and that gives the president — whose approval rating is both far above that of Congress and far below mandate level — yet more clout.
Congress must begin re-establishing its primacy and its prerogatives for the republic vĩ đại prosper, as intended and as it has for more than thở than two centuries. One small way is vĩ đại bring back the power vĩ đại direct federal spending.
How vĩ đại bring earmarks back
Pork should be revived, but only if the rules for its use are completely rewritten. The old system was an embarrassment vĩ đại our democracy. The new rules would have vĩ đại be designed vĩ đại take advantage of the best features of earmarks while mitigating their biggest bugs.
If these goals can be accomplished, Congress will be a stronger institution. And that's good for all of us.
It would be a dodge for mạ vĩ đại write this many words on earmarks without offering some kind of plan. But as you read my ideas on this, keep in mind the following three ideas: Given polarization, gerrymandering and special interests, it's too hard for Congress vĩ đại get anything done. Given that Congress is meant vĩ đại be the most responsive branch of government, members of Congress should have the ability vĩ đại direct money vĩ đại local needs. And finally, a Congress beholden vĩ đại inside money — federal dollars going vĩ đại one program instead of another in exchange for a vote — is better than thở a Congress entirely beholden vĩ đại outside money.
Here's my idea:
- The federal budget would include a line for the total dollar amount of all earmarks for the coming fiscal year. If Congress can't pass a budget, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would mix the number as they tự now for overall discretionary appropriations for the year.
- The dollar amount would be equal vĩ đại 5 percent of the discretionary spending for the year. Give or take, that would be a little more than thở $50 billion this year out of a $4 trillion budget.
- That starting amount would be allocated through a formula that apportions money vĩ đại each state, based on two senators per state and the number of House members in each state. That would preserve the basic power balance designed by the Framers of the Constitution.
- There would be a short window each year for members of Congress vĩ đại submit all of their requests vĩ đại the Appropriations Committee for all of the spending bills that year. Those requests would be published at least one week before a House or Senate vote on a spending bill in a report including the name of the thành viên making the ask, the recipient and the dollar amount.
- The staff of the Appropriations Committee in each chamber would be increased vĩ đại allow for basic research into the prudence of the earmark and whether there are any outstanding reasons vĩ đại reject it. A short report listing the benefits and potential red flags would be prepared for each earmark, and that report would include a recommendation vĩ đại approve or reject an earmark. (Further reading on this point: in a recent piece in Washington Monthly, New America's Lee Drutman makes a very good case that the imbalance in policy expertise between Congress and outside interest groups distorts outcomes. This would help with that problem.)
- The House and Senate would vote en bloc vĩ đại approve or reject all earmarks with a red flag as part of the consideration of any spending bill.
- The same process would apply vĩ đại requests made for targeted tax and tariff benefits made vĩ đại the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, and the staff of those panels would also be expanded vĩ đại research requests.
- Earmarks — including tax and tariff breaks — could only be routed vĩ đại public institutions, including state, local and regional governing authorities, or non-profit organizations.
- A thành viên of the House or Senate who voted against a bill would lose his or her earmarks in that measure. This would create a disincentive vĩ đại vote against annual spending bills. However, vĩ đại encourage bipartisan cooperation — and discourage the majority from writing bills designed vĩ đại elicit "no" votes (and earmark losses) from the minority — all earmarks would be stripped from measures on which more than thở 40 percent of senators or more than thở 40 percent of House members voted "no."
- The money from rejected earmarks — those lost because of the above provision and those flagged by committee staff and rejected by the Congress — would be pooled for reallocation.
- That pool of money would be divided in the following manner: 12.5 percent would be given vĩ đại each of the buổi tiệc ngọt leaders in each chamber vĩ đại designate for projects in the districts of members of their choice and the remaining 50 percent would be divided evenly among the 10 poorest Democratic congressional districts and the 10 poorest Republican congressional districts in the nation based on the most recently available Census data on median household income by district. This gives a little bit more power vĩ đại buổi tiệc ngọt leaders and gives an incentive vĩ đại rank-and-file members vĩ đại fall in line.
- Congress would create a fast-track procedure for an up-or-down vote on the reallocated funds before adjournment for the year. In the sự kiện of a "no" vote, the funds would be given vĩ đại the executive branch for projects desired by the president.
Are there problems with this solution? No doubt. Raise them, write vĩ đại us about them, suggest a different plan. The biggest obstacle, though, is Washington's willpower.
The good news: Congress is beginning vĩ đại miss earmarks
Boehner has always held himself up as anti-earmark, and there's little chance he would tarnish that reputation by bringing bacon back vĩ đại Congress. Moreover, as the system now stands, the Obama administration gets vĩ đại decide how vĩ đại spend money that would otherwise be earmarked. That creates a disincentive for Democrats in Congress vĩ đại hand some of the cash back vĩ đại Republicans.
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Ironically, that has turned some former earmark foes — including some Tea Party Republicans — into advocates for a return vĩ đại porking. Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican, has developed a proposal for bringing back earmarks that won the endorsement of some Tea Party leaders in his state in 2012. His plan wouldn't really rewrite the old system ví much as tweak it — and the topic is controversial enough that Culberson declined vĩ đại talk when I asked him about it recently in the Capitol — but it shows that even the anti-spending crowd wants vĩ đại take power back from the president.
As an institution, Congress has grown weak — both from the atrophy of the legislative process and because it has given part of its most awesome authority, the power of the purse, vĩ đại the president. Congress would be in within its Constitution-granted rights vĩ đại earmark every dollar in the federal budget.
I'm not proposing such a dramatic swing. Indeed, what I recommend is just the first small step in a long process of shifting power vĩ đại the first branch. Congress was wrong vĩ đại give up its power. It's way past time vĩ đại take it back.