For a minute last week, House Republicans almost did something very smart.
A proposal was offered to bring back earmarks — the pork barrel spending added to bills that allows individual members a little goody here and there for their districts. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put the kibosh on the plan even though it enjoyed significant support within the room, according to The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis. The measure isn’t totally dead — a task force will look into it, and a floor vote on a revised proposal could happen next year.
Earmarks have been banned since Republicans retook the House majority in 2010. Then-Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) was a lifelong opponent of earmarking and pushed the prohibition as an example to voters that the GOP was serious about cleaning up Washington. (Republicans had taken a major hit earlier in the decade because of the earmarking scandal of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California.)
“Good!” you think to yourself. “It’s inarguably bad for members of Congress to be able to slip $50 million for a highway with their name on it into some unrelated bill! It’s exactly what people are sick of in Washington!”
That point of view makes sense — in theory.
Jonathan Rauch, in a hugely important cover story in the Atlantic earlier this year, makes the best case for earmarks I’ve ever read:
“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. Starting in the ’70s, however, and then snowballing in the ’90s, the regular appropriations process broke down, a casualty of reforms that weakened appropriators’ power, of ‘sunshine laws’ that reduced their autonomy, and of polarization that complicated negotiations. Conservatives and liberals alike attacked pork-barreling as corrupt, culminating in early 2011, when a strange-bedfellows coalition of tea partyers and progressives banned earmarking, the practice of dropping goodies into bills as a way to attract votes — including, ironically, votes for politically painful spending reductions.”