Feb 16, 2021

Democrats to lift ban on earmarks.

Democrats to lift ban on earmarks.

Congressional pork is back on the menu.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 9 minutes.

Hello to everyone, except all my readers in Texas who apparently still don’t have any power. Today we’re talking about the return of earmarks. Plus, a reader question about what political stances will be deemed unacceptable 20 years from now.

Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader, is an outspoken advocate of bringing back earmarks. Photo: US Department of Labor

Quick hits.

  1. Six of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump are facing blowback back at home. The lone exception is the Utah Republican delegation and Mitt Romney. (Business Insider)
  2. Conservative donors who gave money to Trump’s effort to fight the election results are now suing, saying they were swindled out of millions of dollars. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  3. Dyjuan Tatro, the senior advisor for strategic outreach who was recently hired by House Democrats, is under fire for past tweets where he called police officers “white supremacists” and called looting a “vital form of social protest.” (Fox News)
  4. Former Republican Sen. David Perdue is already exploring a 2022 run to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock, who will be up for re-election after winning the special election that gave Democrats control of the Senate last month. (Politico)
  5. A rocket strike near a U.S. base in Iraq killed one U.S.-led coalition contractor and wounded eight other people, sparking fears of new hostilities. (Associated Press)
  6. BONUS: The social media app Parler said it is back online with a new, independent technology. But users said they are still having trouble accessing their accounts or the app, and Apple and Google are still not showing the app in their stores. (Reuters)

What D.C. is talking about.

Earmarks. Also called member-directed spending, pork, pork-barrelling, bacon, fat, or fluff. Generally speaking, earmarks are funding or projects that get inserted into legislation at the request of a senator or representative, usually in an effort to earn that member of Congress’s vote. Typically, they are not spending commitments added onto a bill, so much as changes in “how the pie is cut.”

Earmarks often come in the form of special projects or funding that members of Congress direct back to their home districts. Hypothetically, if Democrats were one vote short of passing an immigration bill, and they wanted to get Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on board but she was hesitant, they might offer to include $20 million in an immigration bill for a hospital in the Bronx — that way she could go back to her district and say, “look what I got for us.”

For decades, earmarks were a critical part of pushing through major legislation. But in the early 2000s, the public soured on earmarks, beginning to view them as open bribes and wasteful spending after they became closely tied to several scandals. Perhaps most infamous was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $223 million earmark that was drafted in 2005 to connect the Alaskan town of Ketchikan to its nearby island airport. The earmark was lifted and the bridge never happened. There was also Jack Abramoff, the infamous lobbyist who went to prison on fraud charges tied to earmarks being used as bribes.

In 2007, Democrats tried to tamp down public criticism of earmarks by instituting reforms around them that required public disclosure of earmark requests. Then in 2011, when Republicans took over the House of Representatives, earmarks were banned.

This had a big impact on legislating. As you can imagine, a potent tool to win over votes with what some call a “legislative bribe” is quite effective — and the result of not being able to use it was equally significant. In 2018, former President Trump actually suggested to members they reinstate earmarks as a way to clear the path for immigration reform.

Now, though, Democrats are the ones who look poised to bring them back. With control of Congress, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) are the respective chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations panels, which oversee rules like this. And in the coming weeks, they’re reportedly planning to reinstate earmarks.

Leahy and DeLauro say the new earmarks will be transparent, with disclosures about who requested them and what entity is getting the money. They also say members will not be able to request them for entities that they have financial ties to, or for for-profit institutions, according to Punchbowl News. They will be limited to state and local governments and nonprofits.

What the left is saying.

The left is supportive of bringing earmarks back with tighter regulation and oversight.

In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey argued that earmarks were exactly what Democrats need to win over moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, asking “Why shouldn’t Democrats curry his favor with a few sky bridges and concert halls?”

“At its peak, pork-barrel spending made up a tiny sliver of the government budget,” she wrote. “Earmarks were never that wasteful either. Most of the money went to reasonable projects — bridges, community centers, worker-training programs, schools. Those are the kinds of things the government exists to finance. Voters like them, communities need them, and members of Congress, with their intimate knowledge of their district, are often pretty good at knowing where to put them.

“Since the demise of the earmark, both Republicans and Democrats have voiced their quiet lamentations about the lost opportunities to secure money for needed projects and to win over their colleagues’ votes,” she said. “Even former Speaker of the House John Boehner—who, as a matter of principle, never sought or got an earmark for his Ohio district—has bemoaned the loss, saying that a little pork would help ‘herd the cats’ on the Hill.”

In a 2018 piece, then Vox reporter Jonathan Allen wrote that earmarks should come back with reforms that limit the amount of money and create more transparency, similar to what Democrats are proposing.

“The problem wasn't in the earmarks, it was in the process that doled them out,” he said. “Until the very end — when Congress tried to save the system — the sponsors of earmarks weren't publicly named. The money was distributed based on political calculation — to increase the power of a particular appropriator or help vulnerable party members win re-election — rather than being spread equitably or based on the merits of the projects competing for cash. There was no vetting to safeguard against lawmakers exchanging earmarks for campaign money.”

What the right is saying.

The right is mostly opposed to earmarks. While some concede the practice could grease the wheels of Congress, there is a general belief that it’s been proven to be ineffective and to breed corruption.

In Roll Call, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) wrote that “Pork was taken off the menu (temporarily, I guess) a decade ago after years of politicians literally pigging out on taxpayer dollars, earmarking millions for special interests and their own pet projects, like that infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Some even went to jail for exchanging bribes over congressional pork. But now Congress wants to bring the bacon back to the legislative process.

“Defense earmarks are especially harmful because they take away critical research and development funds and direct them to things that have no value to the military or will actively harm our troops,” she wrote. “The Navy was forced to buy luxury speedboats they didn’t need, so they turned around and gave them to a local college. Second, the Marines were forced to buy ‘combat’ T-shirts that would have burned their bodies if they were caught in a fire in Iraq or Afghanistan. You can’t make this stuff up. Instead of putting taxpayer money to good, important use — like researching and developing new technologies and weaponry — the largest government agency blew it.”

In 2019, The Wall Street Journal editorial board tried to nip talk of reinstating earmarks in the bud.

“Some Republicans have been nostalgic for better times that never existed,” the board said. “President Trump waxed last year about the ‘great friendliness’ when earmarks ruled. The claim is that earmarks make it easier to pass legislation, and this might be a worthwhile conservative trade if it meant Congress could pull together majorities for, say, something big like entitlement reform. Slices of pork would supposedly be the grease for difficult but essential reform that would shrink the burden of government. In our observation, the opposite is closer to the truth: Earmarks grease the skids for bigger government.

“None of today’s gridlock would be overcome by earmarks,” the board wrote. “Democrats aren’t going to give President Trump a political victory in return for a local courthouse. A bike path in Portland wouldn’t have won the vote of Maine Senator Susan Collins to repeal ObamaCare.”

My take.

The best argument for restoring earmarks is that Congress has been slowly abdicating its responsibility to the presidency. Consolidated, unchecked executive power is a great concern of mine — and it should be one of yours, too. From Bush to Obama to Trump and now Biden, presidential power is running more unchecked every term. Starting wars, spending tax dollars and signing executive orders in the place of legislating is the new norm on both sides.

And, as has been well argued, earmarks could be a way to get Congress moving again. Members should have a vested interest in every spending bill, but the cold truth is they don’t,  and earmarks could bring that interest back.

Still, color me skeptical. Last time we had earmarks, some members of Congress were trading those dollars for campaign contributions, lobbyists were begging for earmarked cash in exchange for campaign support, and entire firms were created to help facilitate these transactions. Worse yet, there’s a good argument they didn’t do much to help underserved districts: numerous reports show that more influential members of Congress received the bulk of earmarked money while lesser-known members failed to “bring home the bacon.”

As Linda Stamato noted in her NJ.com piece, which is worth reading, a practice openly described as “organized bribery” by the people advocating for it (as The New York Times editorial board did) is not exactly the way to reinstate public trust in a broken institution. She also pointed out that a Congressional Research Service report showed even the seemingly good ones, like money for hospitals, “didn’t reflect an analysis of hospital needs for states as a whole and they didn’t originate from requests from the Department of Health and Human Services. Other hospitals, having greater need, but lacking political heft, gained nothing at all.”

It’s also true that just as earmarks can grease the wheels of Congress, they can also bring it to a screeching halt. As it turns out, earmarks aren’t just used by a Congressional majority or leadership to sweeten the pot for a dissenting member — they’re also used by dissenting members to hold the Congressional majority or leadership hostage. Take the example at the beginning of this newsletter and turn it on its head: what if AOC refused to support a bill unless she got that hospital? How is that greasing the wheels?

Finally, I’m skeptical of the efforts for reform. They sometimes seem in good faith on both sides, but we’re ultimately relying on Congress to regulate itself. Even an all-out ban on earmarks actually produced different workarounds for porked-up spending — loopholes that should be closed too, rather than used as proof that you can’t stop members from finding ways to spend on pet projects. Even if the requests are public, the root of those requests — the true reasons — will remain behind closed doors and out of public view, and by the time we get answers the bills and earmarks will be out the door. Congress had its chance to earmark responsibly and blew it — that they can’t legislate now is no reason to reward them for the crimes of the past.

Your questions, answered.

Q: This past election cycle a lot of Dem candidates got a lot of grief for positions they held in the past, such as Biden's positions on criminal justice in the 90s, that simply reflected the popular consensus of the time and were seen as no brainers back then. From your perspective, which policies/stances that we take for granted as acceptable these days will be the ones we grill 2040 presidential candidates for supporting in 2021?

— Sol, Durham, North Carolina

Tangle: I love this question, and imagine I could write a whole newsletter on it (I just might). For the sake of brevity, I’ll give three big ones that come to mind:

Fighting for non-renewable energy jobs. Obviously, the progressive left has already moved past this, but something like fracking is still such a hot-button issue that Joe Biden wouldn’t take an oppositional stance on it while campaigning in Pennsylvania. The next generation is very, very left on climate change. And whether you think humans are a primary cause or not (I think we are), the fact that our environment is sick is more apparent every day.

Even worse for the people fighting “climate-friendly” initiatives: none of this is going to change anytime soon. Even if the leftmost climate activists fighting to stop all emissions got what they wanted, the experts tell us it would take decades of focused action to undo much of the damage already done, meaning in 20 years, our progress still wouldn’t be obvious. But when water shortages start regularly popping up in America, along with things like the increasing frequency of extreme wildfires, droughts and floods, the political lexicon is going to shift even further.

I also think acquiescence to China will be a political death knell. I’m cautious not to sound like a fear-monger in China and aware I’ve written a lot about this recently; but plenty of trends point to their economic and global dominance as the world superpower (a position the U.S. currently occupies) in the next 20-30 years. I’m imagining a world where China’s influence on trade and its military strength give it a more powerful position than the U.S. on the global stage, even amongst our European allies, and Democrats who have spent the last decade becoming intertwined in corporate and Chinese interests will look very, very bad in retrospect.

Finally, the moderate position on crime and criminal justice today will look as bad as Biden’s positions in the 1990s do now. I think moderate Democrats and many Republicans will seem unthinkably draconian in 20 years, while progressives, Libertarians and a big chunk of the anti-establishment “Trump base” will seem forward-thinking. My belief is the next great civil rights movement will be the rights of incarcerated people in the U.S. I actually think we’re already at the beginning stages of it.

To the next generation of voters, a criminal justice system that seeks to punish someone rather than rehabilitate them will look absurd. The reality of more than two million people currently languishing in cages will be far more embedded in the public consciousness than it is now. The reality of someone being stuck in prison because they can’t pay for bail at a time of egregious income inequality will become reprehensible. Trump’s embrace of some criminal justice reforms planted the seeds of this on the right, while civil Libertarians and progressives were already there. In 20 years, I think it’ll be a sliver of a minority position to support being “tough on crime,” and a lot of the people supporting that position now will not be looked on favorably in 20 years.

A story that matters.

The winter weather that tore through Texas this week has left nearly five million people without power. It’s also set off a robust debate about how the largest energy producing state in the U.S. can fail to make it through a week of below-freezing temperatures without rolling blackouts. The Wall Street Journal editorial board was quick to blame the outages on a move away from coal and nuclear power and an over-reliance on wind and solar. At the same time, articles like one in The Washington Post framed the unprecedented weather as a product of climate change. The diametrically opposed reactions illustrate the challenges clean energy will face in this political climate, and could be a look into the future as states across the U.S. modernize their energy grids with renewables.


  • 12%. The percentage of Democrats who have already been vaccinated, according to a poll conducted by Civiqs.
  • 10%. The percentage of Republicans who have already been vaccinated, according to a poll conducted by Civiqs.
  • 72%. The percentage of Democrats who plan to get the vaccine when it’s available to them, according to a poll conducted by Civiqs.
  • 33%. The percentage of Republicans who plan to get the vaccine when it’s available to them, according to a poll conducted by Civiqs.
  • 59%. The percentage of Republicans who say they want Trump to play a major role in the party going forward, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult this week.
  • 41%. The percentage of Republicans who said they want Trump to play a major role in the party going forward, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult on January 7th.


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Have a nice day.

The world’s longest hockey game finished this week after running for 252 hours (10 and a half days) near Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. 40 players took part in the game, going nonstop 24 hours a day for seven days a week. At times the temperature dropped to minus 67 Fahrenheit, leading to shattered pucks and skate blades breaking in half. But the players didn’t stop, and they did it all for a good cause: they raised $1.5 million for cancer research throughout the game. (Associated Press)

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