Is Pork What Congress Needs?

"Favoring legislators with small gifts for their districts in order to achieve great things for the nation is an act not of sin but of statesmanship," wrote Professors John Ellwood and Eric Patashnik in their seminal 1993 article, "In Praise of Pork."

For 221 years, those acts of "statesmanship," in the form of earmarks, lubricated Congress’s legislative wheels, making difficult votes more palatable and giving even the most junior members of Congress a direct stake in the appropriations process. 

The Lighthouse Act, signed into law by George Washington in 1789, contained the first pork project. In order to mollify opposition from southern members of Congress, the bill authorized the construction of a new lighthouse in Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Ultimately, $147,169.54 -- just under $3.8 million today -- was appropriated for the project.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt chose Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as the home for the Manhattan Project to win favor and funding from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kenneth McKellar. Oak Ridge National Laboratory remains a significant Department of Energy facility, responsible for thousands of jobs in Tennessee.

However, in one of his first acts after winning the House majority in 2010, Speaker-Elect John Boehner announced a ban on congressional earmarks. He cited the move as evidence that Republicans were “dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington.” The Tea Party Caucus, including several members who had just been elected to Congress, cheered him on.

The earmark ban was not simply a Tea Party crusade. Progressive watchdog Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington (CREW) wrote on its website that earmarks encourage "pay-to-play malfeasance, which siphons off scarce taxpayer dollars to reward contributors and lobbyists."

Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig argued in 2009, "Earmarks are a cancer: Not because they consume a large part of the budget — they don't; not because we shouldn’t be spending money — we should. But because they feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works."

Today he acknowledges "its completely plausible that removing earmarks makes it much more difficult to get cooperation from members of Congress." However earmark reform "made it less valuable for certain people to give money to certain members of Congress."

According to Lessig, "if we had a clean system for funding elections, some sort of public funding system, then I'd have no problem with earmarks."

But eliminating the grease that smoothed the passage of legislation for more than two centuries has led to predictable results -- a breakdown in the governing process and the inability of Congress to conduct normal business in the absence of a crisis.

The current government shutdown and the most recent round of debt-ceiling chicken are the latest consequences of this environment, as evidenced by the fact that on multiple occasions Speaker Boehner has been unable to sell deals cut with Democrats to his own caucus. Earmarks never accounted for a significant outlay of federal resources, yet they were a critical tool used by congressional leaders to cement support for major legislation and keep members of their caucuses in line during difficult votes.

"The demise of earmarks has been a huge part of the dysfunction of Congress," said Steve Elmendorf, a former aide to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "They just don’t have the ability to give people something for doing stuff for the leadership."

Elmendorf, now a D.C. based lobbyist, also believes the growing influence and financial heft of outside groups on both sides of the ideological divide have contributed to the weakening of traditional power centers in Washington.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on Congress, agrees that it "hamstring[s] the leaders" to eliminate "any of the tools that a leader could have that provide a carrot or stick."

Ornstein added a critical caveat related to the present Congressional stalemate: House Republicans elected over the past two cycles were not "going to be persuaded by the threat of removing a project or the plumb of giving a product." Tea Party members, in particular, are ideologically opposed to this style of government spending, which led to the ban in the first place.

As a result of this political climate, Ornstein doubts that Boehner could dole out enough pork to convince Republicans to end the government shutdown. By contrast, in 2003, the vote count on the Medicare prescription drug bill was close enough for the leadership to buy off members one by one.

Meanwhile, Elmendorf sees a broader legislative trend created by the absence of earmarks. There is now "a disconnect between members and what’s going on" in federal agencies, he said. "It strikes me that a lot of the more conservative members have no reason to be supportive of any of these programs because they don’t have anything to do with them."

"You have a bunch of members who the only way they’ve seen the Congress do anything is through crisis,” said Elmendorf. “And in this lurching from crisis to crisis we are not teaching people lessons in how to legislate and get things done."

As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic wrote in 1998, "Pork is like putting oil in your car engine: it lubricates the parts and keeps friction to a minimum."

Now, in our second Congress without earmarks, we have seen how intentionally clogging the legislative engine can bring the government to a screeching halt.