Could Reviving Earmarks Get Congress Moving Again?
"You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" is an old and cherished maxim of our republic. In politics, that's called an earmark, aka pork. One member of Congress gets a road or a monument for his or her state in exchange for a vote on the bill in question.
Congress has lived on this since the era of stovepipe hats. The political vogue lately, however, has been to repudiate those earmarks. But with the recent gridlock in Washington, the feeling is that perhaps some of that grease might help ease things.
Long before President Clinton, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President Obama, to name a few, opposed earmarks, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., heard about them in the 1960s, when his father, Milward Simpson, was in the Senate.
"[Lyndon Johnson] came up to Pop one time and said, 'Milward, what can I do for you? I need your vote ... surely you must have a dam or something out there you need in Wyoming,' " Simpson tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "I'm not talking about purity; I'm just talking about reality."
In 2010, that reality was outlawed, and now the question is whether the ban was a help or a hindrance to the political system.
The Rise Of The Earmark
There was a lot of backroom dealing when Sen. Alan Simpson was in Congress.
"There isn't a single person in Congress — not one, not me, not anybody — that didn't ... want to hook [a project] to a moving train," Simpson says. "So they'd wait for a bill they knew would pass, couldn't possibly not pass, and they'd just hook it on."
Until the 1990s, earmarks were mostly used by top dogs in Congress who sat in key Appropriations Committee seats. Then, in 1995, when the Republicans took over Congress, lawmakers started to think of earmarks as a tool — a really effective one.
"This was something that the rank and file could use, particularly lawmakers in vulnerable districts, to help show that they could bring home the bacon and get re-elected," says Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ellis says it touched off a frenzy of spending, and Congress doubled the amount spent in earmarks to more than $14 billion by 1998.
"As you start opening that spigot, it's like chum in the water for Washington lobbyists," he tells NPR's Lyden. "So then you had more lobbyists because there were more earmarks, and then more earmarks because there were more lobbyists."
Up and up the earmarks went, on both sides of the aisle. But when people talk about earmarks, Ellis says, it's often about the more benign things like the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the Sparta Teapot Museum or the statue of Vulcan in Birmingham, Ala. What worries him are the ones we don't hear much about.
"In my opinion, the more insidious ones are probably some of these smaller defense earmarks, where maybe a million dollars is going to a defense contractor that's hired a lobbyist [and] made campaign contributions," Ellis says. "Really, this is a pay-to-play type of environment, and those don't get caught as much and you have to do a lot of digging to get them."
It's not only insidious and inefficient, Ellis says, but it's also part of a broken system where funding is allocated not on the basis of project merit but instead on political muscle.
"When you have a tight budget situation, we can only afford to be spending money on the best and the most important projects, not because they happen to be in the most important lawmakers' district," he says.
'A Small Price To Pay'
In 2010, several senators, including Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced a bipartisan bill to end earmarks. Udall tells Lyden that he had become convinced that earmarks were unfairly apportioned.
"The more senior and the more committees on which you sat, the more earmarks you were able to generate, and that just seemed to me to be fundamentally unfair," Udall says.
He says that led to a mad pursuit of earmarks at the expense of other work he says Congress should have been focused on.
None of the recent political gridlock has disabused him of the change brought about by his legislation. However, after months of grim faces, foul language and frayed tempers, whispers are growing louder that it may be time to rethink the earmarks ban.
"As distasteful as we can all make arguments showing how bad it [was], we got a lot more done," says Rick Ungar, who wrote a piece for Forbes saying there's a case to be made for allowing earmarks to return.
Ungar says earmarks served a purpose by bringing along votes that weren't coming along for the right reasons. Despite the roughly $15 billion in earmarks spent in previous years, Ungar says that might have been a small price to pay if earmarks could have been used to move legislation on recent budget negotiations in Congress, for instance.
Despite earmarks being used to essentially "buy" votes, which Ungar agrees should not be necessary in Congress, he says the reality is that a discussion about bringing them back still needs to take place.
"We cannot handle too much more of the situation we currently face where you cannot get legislation through or legislation can only get through when it is done at the last hour," Ungar says. "This is not a healthy way to run a government."
If returning earmarks is the way to get things done in Congress, Ungar says, we just might have to accept it.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
We're talking on this show about an old and cherished maxim of our republic: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. In politics, that's called pork. You get a road or a monument, I get your vote.
Members of Congress and all of us have lived on this since the era of stovepipe hats. Lately, with the gridlock in Washington, the feeling is that some of that grease might help ease things. The political vogue, though, has been to repudiate this.
SARAH PALIN: I told Congress thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere up in Alaska. If our state wanted a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves.
LYDEN: But long before Sarah Palin was talking about the infamous bridge to nowhere, long before Bill Clinton, John McCain and President Barack Obama, to name just a few, opposed earmarks, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson recalls hearing about them in the 1960s.
ALAN SIMPSON: I remember my father was in the U.S. Senate, and when Lyndon Johnson was president, he came up to pop one time. He said, Milward, what can I do for you? I need your vote. And dad said, well, nothing. He said, oh, surely you must have a dam or a road or something out there in Wyoming. And the old man said, no, I don't. But anyway, that's - I'm not talking about purity. I'm just talking about reality.
LYDEN: Well, in 2010, that reality was banned. And now the question is whether the ban was a help or a hindrance to our political system.
SIMPSON: Did it do us any good to see them go away?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Our cover story today: Pass the bacon or passing on the bacon?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: When Republican Senator Alan Simpson was in Congress, there was a lot of backroom dealing going on. If you wanted to whip people into voting a certain way, you might suggest that, hey, if you want that project of yours to be funded, we could maybe make that happen in the next appropriations cycle. You help us here, right?
SIMPSON: And there isn't a single person in Congress - not one, not me, not anybody - that didn't, when I was there, came there in '78, '79 that when they wrote and said we need this kind of a thing grants people writing day and night and you just had your staff throw it into the stack. And they always knew they wanted to hook up to a moving train.
So they'd wait for a bill that they knew damn well would pass, couldn't possibly not pass, and just hook it on. It was called linking up the train. The engine was moving, and you might have been in the caboose when you started, but at the end, you were right up there with the engine.
LYDEN: Until the 1990s, earmarks were used mostly by top dogs in Congress who sat in key Appropriations Committee seats. Then in 1995, when the Republicans took over Congress, lawmakers started to think of earmarks as a tool, a really effective one. Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
STEVE ELLIS: This was something that the rank and file could use, particularly lawmakers in vulnerable districts, to help show that they could bring home the bacon and help them get re-elected.
LYDEN: Ellis says it touched off a frenzy of spending, Congress doubled the amount spent in earmarks to over $14 billion by 1998.
ELLIS: As you start opening that spigot, it's like chum in the water for Washington lobbyists. And so then you had more lobbyists because there were earmarks, and then more earmarks because there were more lobbyists.
LYDEN: And up and up and up the earmarks went on both sides of the aisle. When these oinkers come to Capitol Hill, they bring the pig book with them.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Congressional café, open for business (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Four hundred thirteen thousand for peanut research in Alabama.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) with $24 billion worth of earmarks.
JONATHAN KARL: Two hundred thousand dollars for tattoo removal in Los Angeles.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible) for Hawaiian canoe trips.
KARL: Old-fashioned pork.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Pork will be paid for with your money.
ELLIS: You know, when people talk about earmarks, they talk about things like the Cowgirl Hall of Fame or the Teapot Museum or the statue of Vulcan or even bigger ones like the bridge to nowhere. But in my opinion, the more insidious ones are probably some of these smaller defense earmarks, where maybe a million dollars it's going to a defense contractor that's hired a lobbyist, that's made campaign contributions to a lawmaker. This is, you know, a pay-to-play type of environment, and those don't get caught as much and you have to do a lot of digging to get them. But those are really where, I think, it's more insidious.
LYDEN: Insidious and inefficient, says Ellis.
ELLIS: It is a broken system for allocating funding because we're awarding the money on the basis of political muscle, not project merit. And so especially when you have a very tight budget situation, we can only afford to be spending money on the best and the most important projects, not because they happen to be in the most important lawmakers' district.
LYDEN: In 2010, several senators introduced a bipartisan bill to end earmarks. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado was one of them.
SENATOR MARK UDALL: I had become more and more convinced during my service in the House as well that earmarks were unfairly apportioned and that the more senior and the more committees on which you sat, the more earmarks you were able to generate, and that just seemed to me to be fundamentally unfair. And it led to finally a pursuit, if you will, a mad pursuit, of earmarks at the expense of a lot of the other work we should be doing here in Congress.
My staff was dedicating an enormous amount of time to generating earmark requests that were leading, frankly in the end, to nowhere. It just seemed to me and the other three senators it was time to bring an end to the practice.
LYDEN: Nothing that's occurred recently has disabused him of the reform brought about by his legislation. However, after months of grim faces, foul language and frayed tempers, whispers are growing louder that it might be time to rethink the earmarks ban.
RICK UNGAR: As distasteful as we can all make arguments, you know, just showing how bad it is, you know, we got a lot more done.
LYDEN: Rick Ungar wrote a piece for Forbes making this case.
UNGAR: Earmarks served a purpose. Not necessarily the purpose they were intended to serve, but they did serve the purpose of bringing along votes that weren't coming along for the right reasons.
LYDEN: So you don't think they were getting out of control? Some of the numbers that have been tossed around in terms of how much was ascribed to earmarking, you know, some very significant dollars.
UNGAR: They were. And you could certainly make the argument that they were getting out of control, but then you could make the argument they were probably always out of control or at least since the time when they started using them as vote buyers as opposed to intelligent expenditures of federal money.
Look. You know, in 2010, the total bill for earmarks was roughly $15-point-somehting billion. Not chump change. No taxpayers should be happy to see their money be wasted on a project that maybe isn't deserving. But if the lack of having earmarks is a tool that the speaker or the president can use to bring along votes, if that would've made a difference in our current fiscal cliff fiasco or in the debt ceiling, then all the things that really cost us enormous sums of money, maybe $15 billion a year is a pretty tiny price to pay.
LYDEN: So what have you been hearing in response to this article? Have any legislative aides or politicians been back channeling to you and saying, you know, we need earmarks back?
UNGAR: I think we know the ones who would like to have them back. They're not back channeling so much because it's one of those topics that people don't like to really get involved with. Interestingly, I actually wrote a piece the other day where I pointed out the effective earmarks that were in the Sandy relief bill.
Harry Reid built in a rather large sum of money in the $60 billion Senate bill to bring relief to the folks here in New York and New Jersey. The largest chunk of earmarks went to projects to benefit the following states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Now, what do they all have in common? Two Republican senators in each of those states, except for Louisiana, that has won. And when you add them together, you get seven Republican senators who came along to vote for the Sandy bill, making it filibuster-proof. So I think what we find is that earmarks do still exist. They just exist in a different way.
LYDEN: So, Rick, would you say that we should bring earmarks back? Do we need them?
UNGAR: I think we have to have a discussion about it. It's so easy to make this argument from both sides. And I know that sounds like I could be waffling on it a bit, but, you know, just like everybody else, it bothers me that these things are used to buy votes when buying votes should not be necessary in Congress. That's the idealistic side speaking.
LYDEN: Gold standard?
UNGAR: Yeah. In reality, you know, I think it's something we should consider. We cannot handle too much more of the situation we currently face where you cannot get legislation through or legislation can only get through when it's done at truly the last hour or beyond. This is not a healthy way to run a government.
And if earmarks - returning earmarks can bring us back to a place where the president or the speaker, whoever it may be, is in a position to make deals to get important legislation through, well, maybe we just have to accept it. One other thing I'd quickly point out. In a system that very much favors incumbents - you know, whether it's the money we have and the political system - this is all designed to favor incumbents. That's what earmarks do.
So you have to ask the question, does it make sense to allow all this money to be spent on supporting the incumbency of our elected officials when they have to run for office? And then say, but on the other hand, we're not going to allow earmarks. It's immoral. It just doesn't make sense. If you want to get rid of all of that, boy, am I in favor of that. But if you're going to continue to have this enormous unlimited sum of money pouring into our political system, does it really make a lot of sense to take earmarks out of the equation?
LYDEN: Well, are you saying if you really want to clean it up in terms of eliminating earmarks, eliminate Citizens United as well?
UNGAR: There you go. If you're going to clean it up, clean it up.
LYDEN: That's Rick Ungar. He's a contributor for Forbes, and he joined us from our studios in New York. Rick, thanks very much.
UNGAR: A pleasure.
LYDEN: By the way, when I asked Senator Alan Simpson if earmarks might make a comeback, he said it's possible.
SIMPSON: Well, everything else seems to be making a comeback. There are no spending cuts on the horizon. No one wants to touch Social Security or precious health care, precious Medicaid, precious defense. So let me tell you: You know why that last highway bill was held up so long and they said this is a jobs bill, it is absolutely critical, and it's there, it's shovel-ready, all the rest of the stuff we heard? Why was it held up for months? It was held up for months so the guys could get their earmarks tacked back on it without ever getting any fingerprints.
LYDEN: Yeah. I guess the old phrase also used to be this bill is a Christmas tree.
SIMPSON: There's plenty of baubles on the Christmas tree and plenty of (unintelligible) out there ready to put them on.
LYDEN: Alan Simpson is a former Republican senator from Wyoming. We spoke to him at his home in Cody. Senator Simpson, thank you for joining us.
SIMPSON: Always a pleasure.
LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.