Mar 15, 2022

The return of earmarks (pork).

The return of earmarks (pork).

Thousands of earmarks were inside the $1.5 trillion bill.

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 on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering the return of earmarks (aka "pork"). Plus, a question about voter ID laws and an important "Story that matters."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who used earmarks to get a ton of funding to his state. Photo: Corey Boles
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who used earmarks to get a ton of funding to his state. Photo: Corey Boles

Correction.

Yesterday, in a quick hit, I referenced the staged Jussie Smollett attack that happened "in the summer" of the 2020 George Floyd protests. This is basically all wrong: The staged attack happened in the winter (notoriously) and in January of 2019, though it did lead to a lot of skepticism around other alleged racially motivated attacks that came in the first year or two after. Time is truly a flat circle and my brain might be broken from the last two years of Covid-19, protests and news.

This is the 57th Tangle correction in its 139-week history, and the first correction since March 8th (one week ago). I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. The United Nations says 3 million refugees have now fled Ukraine. Last night, a 35-hour curfew was instituted in Kyiv, where Russia's assault has intensified. (The curfew)
  2. Senator Joe Manchin said he will not vote to confirm Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was nominated to be the top banking regulator on the Federal Reserve. Raskin is well-known for concerns about climate change. (The denial)
  3. The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, warned that a nuclear conflict was "within the realm of possibility" as Russia's war in Ukraine unfolds. (The warning)
  4. At least four House Democrats have tested positive for Covid-19 since their annual retreat in Philadelphia (The positives). A wave of Covid-19 is also prompting major lockdowns in China, which is still attempting a “zero-Covid” strategy. (The outbreak)
  5. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not be able to appeal a decision in a top United Kingdom court to extradite him to the U.S. His extradition still requires government approval. (The ruling)

Today's topic.

Earmarks are back. Sometimes called member-directed spending, pork, pork-barrelling, bacon, fat, or fluff, earmarks are funding for projects that get inserted into legislation at the request of specific members of Congress, usually in an effort to win over that member's vote (think of it as politically acceptable coercion, even bribery). Usually, earmarks are not spending commitments added into a bill, but instead are ways of cutting up allocated money to benefit certain districts or projects.

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 were involved in several scandals. Perhaps the most infamous of these 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 actual, criminal bribes.

In 2007, Democrats attempted to reform earmarks by requiring that they be publicly disclosed. In 2011, Republicans took over Congress and banned them outright. Following that move, though, legislative efforts in Congress ground to a halt — so much so that former President Donald Trump even suggested bringing them back as a way to help pass immigration reform. Then, in 2021, Democrats brought earmarks back, a moment we covered in Tangle here.

But last week, when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, after 11 years of no earmarks, they returned in earnest. More than 4,000 earmarks were included in the bill, according to a 367-page list obtained by The Hill. Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example, was tied to 59 earmarks totaling $80 million in funding in the omnibus’s transportation and housing and urban development (HUD) section alone. Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said Schumer's name was attached to 142 earmarks. Via Punchbowl News:

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ.) got more than $80 million in construction funds for three military bases and $59 million for a light-rail project in Phoenix... Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat, helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for local police forces, a key issue for the former state attorney general... Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) got more than $21 million for his district, including federal aid for some major beach restoration work. Frontliners who serve on the House Appropriations Committee raked in the bucks. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, got $11 million for his district.

Democrats weren’t alone. We documented at least 13 Republican members who got in on the earmark action, too. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) got hundreds of millions of dollars for Alabama, including $76 million for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine to build a new biomedical research building. Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) got $4.6 million for the Dayton Arcade, a downtown center for business and the arts. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) hauled in $1 million for a mobile screening project for a hospital north of New Orleans. And there were plenty of others.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments about the return of earmarks, and then my take. You can read our previous coverage here.


What the left is saying.

  • The left argues in favor of earmarks, saying they will get Congress legislating again.
  • Some say earmarks will force certain members to actually do their jobs.
  • Others point out that the ban on earmarks did little to solve major spending issues.

Chris Cillizza said the actual impact of banning earmarks was very different from what those who pushed the ban hardest believed it would be.

"What happened, in practice, was that leaders in both parties lost leverage over their rank-and-file members," Cillizza said. "They no longer had a carrot to dangle in front of wavering members to get them to sign on to a piece of legislation where the vote was tight.That loss of leverage was compounded by the rise of third-party groups -- led by super PACs -- over the past decade. Their ascension signaled a diminution in the power of political parties. No longer could party leaders overseeing campaign committees bend members to their will by offering -- or withholding -- support.

"Add those two factors together, and you get developments like the rise of the House Freedom Caucus, a rump group that has no loyalty to or fear of party leaders. And over the last decade, it's the extremes -- like those represented by the Freedom Caucus -- who have increasingly [had] influence in Congress," he added. "The simple fact is that without earmarks in the modern political climate, congressional leadership has no tools to cajole and convince lawmakers to be for anything. The default position has, therefore, been ‘no.’ Obstruction -- on everything -- has been the order of the day. Now, just because earmarks are back doesn't mean legislation will be rolling through Congress immediately. But it does mean that party leaders now have at least some real ability to persuade their members on key bills. Which makes a world of difference.”

In The New Republic, Jason Linkins said the return of earmarks is bad news for "MAGA performance artists" who now have to do real legislative work.

"The Republican Party’s retreat from meaningful policymaking in recent years hasn’t just ensured that robust and productive debates over governance and ideas have faded from the scene," Linkins said. "The vacuum produced by the lack of substantive activity has created opportunities for a new breed of troll lawmaker to fill it with a never-ending display of “own the libs” spectacles. The newly minted members of Congress from the MAGA-QAnon set—Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert—have been this movement’s leading lights, and they barely pretend that they have a legitimate role to play as lawmakers.

"How will bringing earmarks help tamp down these wild and untamed MAGA members of Congress? Well, earmarks will help responsible congresspersons draw a stark contrast with their idiotic colleagues," Linkins added. "The primary purpose of a member of Congress is to allocate and spend taxpayer money. Thanks to the formal ban on earmarks, they’ve been doing it with one hand tied behind their back. Moreover, the lack of earmarks has allowed Greene and Boebert to luck into a situation where they can thrive in Congress doing little more than occasional headline-grabbing stunts. But if Congress reverts to its former, earmark-happy self, touching off a hunt for money and perks to bring back home to constituents, then that will require a different skill set for members to succeed—one that I do not believe members like Greene currently possess."

In 2021, Annie Lowrey wrote simply that "earmarks are good."

"In 2010, the Tea Party secured a ban on earmarks," Lowrey wrote. "But getting rid of them did not tamp down government spending, as the Tea Party wanted. And it had unintended consequences, including making it that much harder for Congress to get anything done. Pushing for an earmark moratorium a decade ago, politicians on both sides of the aisle tended to make two arguments. The first had to do with cost and waste. Fiscal hawks railed against earmarks as expensive: The 9,129 pork-barrel projects approved for fiscal year 2010 cost something like $17 billion. Worse, earmarks sometimes financed unnecessary or even ridiculous-seeming vanity projects: bridges to nowhere, teapot museums, indoor rain forests.

"The second argument had to do with process and good governance," she said. "In the 1990s and 2000s, earmarks were implicated in any number of scandals; unscrupulous politicians traded them for campaign contributions or directed projects to friends in exchange for kickbacks. But earmarks were never a cause of government bloat or a driver of the federal debt. At its peak, pork-barrel spending made up a tiny sliver of the government budget. 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."


What the right is saying.

  • The right argues against earmarks, saying they are inviting wasteful spending and absurd projects that could be funded elsewhere.
  • They say the new process is just as opaque as the old one.
  • They say earmarks are an invitation to corruption.

In Reason, Eric Boehm wrote that "earmarks are back" and "just as sleazy as ever."

"Yes, each of those items is only a few drops in the ocean of government spending, but they add up," Boehm wrote. "And the bigger problem with earmarks has always been that they are secretive and opaque, often slipped into legislation with no public oversight or process for determining whether the spending is really needed. That makes them ripe for corruption—and suggests that lawmakers are well aware that many requests wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. It's often not even clear which lawmaker has requested what spending, which makes it difficult for voters to hold anyone accountable after the fact.

"Other advocates for resurrecting earmarks promised that doling out pork could be done in a way that was more transparent and accountable," Boehm said. "When the House Select Committee published a 2020 report proposing the return of earmarks... it promised that the new earmarks would be transparent, trackable online, and subject to greater scrutiny before being approved. Is that what we got in the omnibus? Hardly. Instead, lawmakers rushed a 2,700-page bill through both the House and the Senate just days after the text was unveiled. There's no website tracking earmarks, no public process for connecting lawmakers to certain requests. Reporters and analysts have had to sift through the text of the bill to identify projects—which, again, are identified only by spending amounts and locations ($3 million for a history museum in Palo Alto, for example). Braun's office has helpfully published information about which members have requested which projects, but that's a far cry from the level of transparency that was promised."

In The Federalist, Christopher Jacobs said the "porkfest" demonstrated "Washington corruption."

"But the piece de resistance of Washington corruption came with the return of earmarks—367 pages of them. At a time [when] our nation faces $30 trillion in debt—not to mention rising inflation—lawmakers saw fit to spend your money on things like $3 million for a museum dedicated to the life of Mahatma Gandhi," Jacobs wrote. "The problem comes not just from spending on such comparatively frivolous projects that local governments or non-profits can and should fund instead of Washington. The projects give lawmakers a reason to vote for otherwise extravagant and fiscally irresponsible legislation.

"One argument made by earmark supporters contains at least a bit of logic to it, if only on the surface: 'Defenders of earmarks argue that if lawmakers can’t request earmarks, it gives executive branch officials disproportionate power to choose which projects get funded.' As someone who opposes giving power to unelected bureaucrats, this theory holds superficial appeal," Jacobs wrote. "But the true argument for limited government—the one that pro-pork earmarkers dare not make—reveals its specious nature. If lawmakers don’t want to give unelected bureaucrats additional power, they should lower federal spending—and reduce the federal workforce while they’re at it. But appropriators never want to lower federal spending, because to do so would reduce their own power."

In Heritage, Matthew Dickerson noted earmarks as one of the ways the omnibus bill was a huge mistake.

"The massive omnibus spending bill includes thousands of earmarks, funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to special interest pork projects," Dickerson wrote. "These earmarks, airdropped into the final omnibus with little transparency, have not been thoroughly vetted. Earmarks have a history of culture of wasteful spending and corruption, with several former members of Congress having been convicted of crimes related to earmarking.

"Despite the attempted spin from some proponents of earmarking, spending carveouts for local parochial projects that have nothing to do with carrying out the federal government’s limited enumerated powers are most decidedly not a valid tool for Congress’s Article I 'power of the purse,'" he wrote. "A decade after conservatives won a major victory by banning earmarks, this omnibus spending bill is instead a win for the swamp of Washington, D.C."


My take.

When I wrote about this in February of 2021, my position was basically this: Earmarks invite corruption, often do not benefit the underserved districts they are allegedly helping, and can sometimes be used to grind Congress to a halt (not just grease the wheels). I also expressed deep skepticism about the "reforms" to improve earmarks. Basically, I bought the argument most commonly sold on "the right."

After seeing this process unfold, I have to say — assuming nothing changes — I was right about the reforms. As Eric Boehm pointed out, few of the promised reforms came to fruition. Where is the website tracking earmarks? Where do I find the data connecting lawmakers to certain requests? Where is the promised transparency? It doesn't exist. One Republican lawmaker (kudos to Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana) is sharing information with reporters, who are simultaneously digging through a 2,700-page bill to get any answers. This is entirely unacceptable, and if it doesn't change (as Democrats promised), then earmarks should get thrown out again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It turns out I got this wrong. Congress did get these pages up — there is one for the House here and one for the Senate here, so the reforms actually did what they were supposed to. Kudos to the folks who put in the work of making this happen.

But I also think, in retrospect, this may be a net positive when you zoom out. Remember: The entire point of banning earmarks was to limit government spending, stop backroom corruption (read: "bribery") and reduce wastefulness. But banning them really did none of those things in any tangible way. In the 11 years since earmarks were banned, spending has continued to balloon, waste is still rampant, and both sides seem to think members of Congress are still finding new ways to make corrupt deals. On top of all that, we created new problems: single members are regularly grinding Congress to a halt, we have more government shutdowns, Congress has become increasingly ineffective, and “community projects” are harder to fund. Not to mention, when Congress is stuck in gridlock the executive branch tends to fill the gaps, which both concentrates presidential power and politicizes the judicial branch that has to play referee. All of this is arguably worse than the outcome of earmarks.

Earmark spending is also a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Earmarks in this bill were limited to 1% of the total funding — so $15 billion of the $1.5 trillion. For more digestible context, that’s a cap of about $1,000 on a yearly spending budget of $100,000. Which is a nice chunk from one perspective, but also — divided by the 4,000 known earmarks — not such an outlandish prospect from another perspective.

It’s also worth pointing out that members have only allocated $10 billion so far, just two-thirds of the total allowable funding. And there were some reforms that worked: According to The Washington Post, lawmakers had to publicly swear they had no financial connection to the entities earmarked, had to document support from communities for these projects, and were prohibited from steering money to private, for-profit companies (meaning most requests were things like hospitals, schools, nonprofits and municipal authorities). In the House, individual members could only get 10 requests each.

All of these reforms are good. They aren't enough, but they're a step in the right direction. I also found Jason Linkins' argument compelling, which is that earmarks will get members of Congress doing their jobs again — especially those who spend more time on Twitter than they do legislating. The last 11 years have been a litany of obstruction, bickering, holdouts, and refusal to play ball. And while Republicans have a well-earned reputation for obstruction, it wasn't just them: Democrats under Trump played their games, too, and now senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema or representatives like The Squad can hold entire bills hostage with no mechanism for unmooring them.

In sum, the process on this bill was still worrisome, and the promised reforms need to come more clearly to fruition. But the pork will only account for at most 1% of the overall cost and, based on the reports I've seen, most of it is going to desired projects that will improve the communities of the members who placed the earmarks. In the end, isn't that what we want from Congress?

Don't like my take? Feel free to reply to this email and let me know why. We love to publish thoughts and feedback from our readers.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I don't understand how you can say voter ID isn't important?

— Bob, Palos Heights, Illinois

Tangle: I've never said voter ID wasn't important, but I have made the argument that it doesn't do much of what either side says it does.

The general argument from the right is that voter ID laws stop voter fraud. The general argument from the left is that voter ID laws suppress turnout. The consensus from most research is that it does neither.

Reasons for this are complicated. For starters, both election fraud and voter fraud (two different things) are still extremely rare (yes, I promise this is true), so adding IDs into a process that is mostly unhindered doesn’t really do anything anyway.

On "suppression," it's also complicated. When voter ID laws are instituted, there is often a big uproar of opposition, which can increase turnout. So it may not be that the laws have no impact, just that the effects they would have are negated by the attention and anger they create. Some studies have found voter ID laws can reduce turnout by 1% to 3%, which is enough to change an election outcome. But those findings are not consistent. Others have shown they increase turnout.

This piece from German Lopez does a good job breaking down the research we have. Harvard Business School explained their research here. And other nationwide studies have affirmed this. I'm sure more work needs to be done, but yes: While it's true there are lots of barriers to getting an ID, I basically think voter ID laws get far more attention than they deserve. From both sides.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

As many as 16 million Americans, including millions of children, are expected to fall off Medicaid rolls when the Covid-19 public health emergency officially ends. States across the country face a "herculean" task to sort out who should remain on Medicaid and who needs to be removed, after enrollment swelled to its largest levels ever during the pandemic. The issue arises because the federal government, as part of a 2020 coronavirus relief bill, gave states extra money to cover Medicaid if they promised not to move anyone off the program for the duration of the emergency. Every state took the deal, expecting it to be a short-term fix; but in the two years since, Medicaid caseloads have risen 22%. Once the national emergency is lifted, every state will have to sort out who is supposed to remain and who is no longer eligible. The Washington Post has the story.


Numbers.

  • 2,741. The length, in pages, of the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package.
  • $4.19 billion. The amount of money, per day, allocated in the omnibus spending package.
  • $41 million. The amount of money, from 28 earmarks, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) collected in the transportation and housing section of the omnibus bill.
  • $6 billion. The amount of money Manchin secured from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for West Virginia.
  • ~4,000. The total number of earmarks tallied so far in the omnibus spending package.
  • ~9,000. The total number of earmarks in the 2010 appropriations bill, the last time earmarks were allowed.

Have a nice day.

Last week in Colorado, a skier and snowboarder survived an avalanche in the backcountry area of Monarch Pass. The skier deployed his airbag and was able to get out from the avalanche unassisted, but the snowboarder was buried and had to be extricated. Missing, though, was the couple's dog, who was presumed dead. But on Saturday night, the dog was found at a trailhead on Monarch Pass by another set of adventurers. “Miraculously the dog survived and made it back to Monarch Pass after spending many nights in cold weather,” Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said. KDVR News has the story.


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