Earmarks could come back: That’s great news for governance and nonprofits

I was wrong about earmarks.

Like a lot of good-government types, I opposed earmarks (which are sole-recipient funds to specific organizations allocated by Congress) and thought earmarks were a sign of brazen corruption, like cash kickbacks from vendors to mayors. I didn’t oppose earmarks out of greed, although earmarks can be seen as bad for grant writers because any funding that’s earmarked isn’t available for grant-funded competitions—I saw them as basically immoral. Corruption is bad, so we should get rid of it, right?

But banning earmarks was (and is) a cure worse than the disease. Without earmarks, congressional leaders have limited tools to discipline members of their caucuses. Members are free to grandstand, vote on principle, and block useful legislation in order to pander to primary voters, rather than general election voters. You, dear reader, may initially think it’s good to vote on principle—as long as the principle is one you uphold. But when it isn’t one you uphold, you’ll likely be angry. You’ll also be angry when Congress seems incapable of acting. Because of the way the United States is structured, there are many intentional chokepoints for legislation, and it’s much easier to block than pass legislation. As parties have become more polarized, we’ve gotten increasing legislative gridlock.

Without earmarks, voters have no incentive to vote for pragmatists who will bring the pork their district. Instead, they can vote for extreme partisans who engage in a lot of symbolic talk and votes without considering what’s really good for the country. When congressional leaders have earmarking power, grandstanding has a real consequence. When congressional leaders don’t have earmarking power, they can’t keep their caucus together and it’s much harder to cobble together the 60 votes needed to pass most anything in the Senate. In Congress, pragmatism is actually better than purity, but we’ve seen increasing ideological purity at the expense of a functioning country.

This is a post, not a book, so I can’t go into great detail about why and how this happens, but The Myth of the Rational Voter is a good place to start. I can say, however, that earmarks improve the incentives on legislators to cut deals and make sure the government can do something—anything, really.

Beyond high-minded principles, some nonprofit and public agencies will also be able to receive earmarks again. Pursuing earmarks isn’t in the scope of our business practice, but it is a useful thing to note.

This article, from 2016, gives some more earmark context on earmarks. This article, gives more context. Here’s a good Tweetstorm.

Note that no one is arguing that earmarks are perfect or that the process is without defect. When I’ve argued the case for earmarks to politically minded friends, they’ve told me that I’m a craven tool of corporate interests (let’s ignore the logic of that for the time being and just view it as a signaling mechanism). But earmarks are better than no earmarks; sometimes bad is an improvement over even worse. We’ve seen what happens to the quality of federal governance without earmarks to discipline congresspeople. It isn’t good. Bring ’em back. I admit publicly that I was wrong.

Here is an argument against earmarks, which I don’t find persuasive for reasons listed in the paragraphs above, but it is a reasonable view.

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