On Congress: Is Pork the way to fix government?

"Washington is broken," is a refrain you hear across the political spectrum. With so many difficult issues left unaddressed by government, many ideas have been discussed to get the system functioning again. Major political reforms like ending gerrymandered districts and opening up the primary system are popular suggestions but difficult to enact. No Labels, a social welfare advocacy organization promoting governmental problem-solving, met this week to propose more marginal changes to the system designed to force legislators to collaborate. But what can the government, particularly the legislature, do right now that can finally shift our political system into gear? You might be surprised at what some are suggesting.
What Congress needs in order to move forward, some say, is a return of earmarks, some good old fashioned pork. Forbes contributor Rick Ungar wrote “Why Congress Cannot Operate Without The Bribing Power Of Earmarks” that caught media attention. Bloomberg Business ran a story that succinctly summed up the pro-pork argument:
“Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals. Only now do we see how true that was. Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce some congressionally sanctioned bribery? That would let members lay claim to the odd million in the interest of striking a deal worth much more.”
Earmarks have officially been banned since 2010. Certainly there are arguments to be made on behalf of earmarks as a tool the executive branch and Congressional leadership could use for corralling majorities in support of legislation. It worked in the past, most notably in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson aggressively pursued support for civil rights reforms by opening up the coffers for legislators willing to trade their votes for home state projects of major importance. Or if you have been to the movies lately, you can see that Daniel Day Lewis, in his portrayal of President Lincoln, happily doles out federal largesse for votes to support the Constitutional amendment banning slavery. More recently, earmarks have been cited as a big reason why Congress was able to pass highway and transportation legislation and the authorization for the Defense Department budget.
But that was then. That was before the debt crisis, the rise of the Tea Party, and the credit downgrade of US debt. Now we are in a new era of politics and many of the old paradigms may no longer apply.
Earmarks, even in their heyday, represented only a small fraction of federal spending and still engendered distrust in the American public. Voters today are generally more averse than ever before to spending taxpayer dollars on most things. With each passing year the electorate’s desires and aversions change and perhaps earmarks could again become a powerful inducement for legislative compromise. But in today’s political climate the marginal utility of a new road or bridge to many voters is lower than their desire to reduce federal spending. The concept that Democratic legislators with large numbers of conservative constituents, or Republican legislators worried about primary contests against more conservative candidates, would be seduced to support high-profile legislative initiatives because of a few million dollars tucked away in the bill for their home district may have become a relic of the past in Washington, just like the traditional earmark itself.

Filed in Blog Topics:  On Congress



The biggest problem is gerrymandering. In the 2012 election, 53,952,240 votes were cast for Democratic candidates, while Republican candidates received 53,402,643, yet Republicans maintain a large Majority in the House. Truly representative government would solve a lot of these problems. The status quo is ruff. - Franklin


I appreciate the sentiment of what you are saying, but I don't think it exactly fits to this particular political environment. The major problem in Washington is not the lack of earmarks, but the lack of sensibility. Let's face it, there are groups of Members on both sides of the aisle that will never compromise on certain issues. They would rather let the world burn than change their position. As much as I think earmarks would help some members (mostly the Senate), I don't think it's the case for everyone. In these extreme groups, individual conviction is stronger than a desire to compromise, which makes any attempt to negotiate null and void. Perhaps the only way to get Congress to work is to let them "bottom out." (i.e., default, government shutdown) I hope it doesn't come to this, but sometimes it's the only way to take a serious look at your problems and start the journey to recovery.


Great piece Douglas. While I would argue we have seen earmarks largely disappear, that isnt entirely the case. Rather, the most senior members of Committees still have the power to direct funding as they see fit. The result of this is simply that the junior members of Congress, who campaigned on ending earmarks, have only succeeding in abdicating their control of the federal budget to the old class and Administration.

Earmarks tend to even the playing field some. They are extremely easy to find, meaning each member would receive more or less equal assistance to their districts.

I fully support bring earmarks back in an expanded fashion. Congress should have any and all control of the purse they wish - at least to they extent they are able to keep up with the amount of work.


I think Adam missed the point and Jason nailed it. Its the job of Congress to manage the purse.


I've never understood the earmark ban. As a taxpayer, why wouldn't I want my elected representatives -- the same representatives constitutionally charged with the power of the purse -- deciding how my tax dollars are spent? They're accountable every two (or six) years whereas bureaucrats at DOT, EPA, DOE, etc. are largely anonymous.

The problem isn't spending in and of itself. There are legitimate functions of government and those responsibilities cost money. The problem is whose deciding where that money goes.


Wait, am I reading this correctly? The answer to fixing wasteful spending by Congress is to add additional wasteful spending? To fix the corruption, let's add more corruption? You can not be serious! It's time to take a look at all Federal programs through transparency and accountability. Earmarks are not the answer! Congress needs term-limits now and a balanced budget amendment.


Right, because term limits have worked so well for California.


I agree that before 2010 (really 2008), in the pre-Tea Party era, earmarks were the grease that made the wheels of government turn. But now the members of the House are too divided--the constituencies who elected those members who comprise the Tea Party Caucus are far too loud to ever allow their members to request any congressionally directed spending, even if it would benefit their own districts, simply because the US runs a deficit. Yes, of course earmarks make it easier for lawmakers to strike deals on bigger, important pieces of legislation, but until the members of the House can collectively move closer to the center (even by an inch), nothing's getting done.


I think the only thing that can save our government is a third term under President Bartlet


There's no camaraderie in Congress anymore. Back in the 80s, Tip and Ronnie would get together over a cigar and some scotch and iron out the details of tax reform. That kind of thing just doesn't happen anymore because of all the fundraising and partisanship. Maybe if members of congress spent more time grabbing a drink with someone from the other side of the aisle the personal relationships could help bridge some of these ideological chasms. In fact, there should be mandatory Congressional inter-caucus speed dating sessions.


I'm inclined to agree with Franklin on the harmful and partisan consequences of gerrymandering- not totally on board with the earmark argument as a way to move forward.

I'm a fan of the biennial budget idea. It would increase oversight and elimination of wasteful programs and reduce the amount of energy wasted in the annual budget fight. I work on federal budgets and time that could be spent on agency mission and oversight is wasted on both sides. Congress would be able to incorporate longer term financing and strategic planning into a biennial appropriation. On the federal side, there would be less opportunity for shutdown battles and uncertainty, greater ability to plan, etc. Of course, no procedural fix can be substituted for tough, partisan policy decisions...but I think we need to create the best environment for making those decisions.


More and more like everybody wants to get theirs. Look at all the Republicans who voted against Sandy Funding? Didn't impact them at the time but a lot of them were feeding from the trough after Katrina. They're hypocrites, pure and simple.


Thank you for your comments everyone!

As a follow up you may find this article by earmark gurus Frisch and Kelly interesting: