Bringing Home the Bacon: It’s What Congress Does

Earmarks or no, members of Congress are going to bring home the bacon to their districts. It is what their constituents want (and expect) them to do.

The NYT has a piece that illustrates why I can’t too excited about attempts to ban earmarks:  Lawmakers Finance Pet Projects Without Earmarks.

The piece discusses the practices of lettermarking, phonemarking, and soft earmarks—all of which are ways to secure/steer funds in the direction of a Senator or Representative’s constituents.  The bottom line is the following:

David E. Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, likened the effort to stamp out earmarks to a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”

“When one door closes, there is always two or three more that they can go through,” Mr. Williams said, adding that he feared that lawmakers would develop even less transparent ways to finance their special projects.

The thing is this:  ultimately this is what constituents expect.  They expect their members of Congress to fund projects for their states.  As such, if the goal is getting our fiscal house in order, then we have to be honest and upfront about these things.  Instead, what we have done is transform “earmarks” into some sort of bogeyman that, if contained, will solve spending problems.  However, this is not the case, and instead it becomes a mostly symbolic gesture and the underlying issues remain largely untouched (i.e., hard choices about where we spend federal dollars).

In short:  just as with various entitlements, until we are honest about what we, as a public, actually want and expect out of Congress in terms of spending, all this talk about fiscal responsibility is just so much babble.  Even shorter:  we, as a public, like the spending.

And, of course, as Jonathan Bernstein notes (as James Joyner pointed out a while back here at OTB as well) all this points to the fact that eliminating earmarks (or phonemarks, lettermarks, etc.) doesn’t eliminate spending:

Politically, the earmark fight seems to be based on how easy it is to mock specific federally-funded projects. That, and the truly odd fact that federal spending is unpopular in general and popular when broken down into categories — but that specific projects, usually presented out of context, are again easy to dislike. For example, spending on health research is wildly popular, but everyone enjoys laughing at the (seemingly) on-again, off-again advice that research produces.

But substantively, this is a straight battle over who gets to make decisions, Congress or the bureaucracy.

Emphasis mine.  Again:  it is all well and good to generically oppose “wasteful spending” and the like, but the bottom line is that one constituency’s wasteful spending is another’s (if not our own)  vital project.  This simple formulation makes the basic politics difficult and they are even moreso when we are not honest about it or when we pretend that something like earmark reform is something that it isn’t.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Steve Plunk says:

    It has been the way for many years but it is also time to change it. A $13 or is it $14 trillion debt will make you think that way.

    BTW, much of that bacon being brought home went only to those politically connected. The average Joe received little benefit and probably now supports an earmark ban. I saw some of it first hand.

    I think we can be honest about it yet still conclude and earmark ban is needed and will do some good. We must change the culture of Washington one step at a time.