Who Needs Earmarks? Republicans Do.

In 2010, riding a wave of populist rage against bank bailouts and corporate lobbyists, House Republicans banned earmarks and secured a pledge from their Senate colleagues to do the same. Now, with a huge infrastructure bill in the works, Democrats are gung-ho about bringing the practice back, and House Republicans have joined them. Senate Republicans need to follow suit.

The case against earmarks was always more about show than substance. Opponents then and now often implied that pork-barrel spending was contributing to the national debt. But the total dollar value of earmarks, the term for spending directed to specific projects, was always miniscule compared to federal spending on entitlements and national defense.

The more serious complaint was that earmarks encouraged corruption by allowing members of Congress to steer federal money toward friends, relatives and donors. While there may once have been some truth to that, reforms have made the process far more transparent.

It’s much easier, in the internet era, to gather and analyze data on federal spending. Legislators who earmark projects to benefit themselves rather than their district are essentially handing their opponents — in both the primary and general elections — a ready-made issue for an attack ad.

The real reason earmarks were a frequent target is because Republicans and moderate Democrats wanted to criticize runaway spending without getting specific about the entitlement cuts that would be necessary to curb it. In other words, it was safer to oppose a “bridge to nowhere” than limits on the procedures that Medicare would cover.

Despite the Republican House’s lifting of the ban, conservative groups are planning to use earmarks as a way to attack the spending in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan without having to oppose more popular elements such as direct payments to families or an increase in the child tax credit.

Those critiques are almost certain to fall flat — with good reason. By all estimates, the economy will be booming by the end of this year and well into the next. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. economy has been performing under its potential because it was stuck in a trap of relatively low private investment.

The economic boost provided by the series of coronavirus relief and stimulus laws over the last year, combined with the Federal Reserve’s commitment to keeping interest rates low, will likely be enough to break the economy out of that trap. If so, a self-reinforcing wave of increases in private investment and productivity will ripple through the economy.

Arguing that this economic renaissance is bad, and that Democratic spending is wrecking the economy, will almost certainly be a nonstarter.

But it’s not just the political case for opposing earmarks that’s in tatters. There is a more fundamental case in their favor. Earmarks reward legislators for compromise and cooperation and lean against ever increasing polarization that makes it difficult for Congress to function.

It is an unfortunate fact of politics that extreme ideologues on both sides are the most likely to closely follow what goes on in Congress. For those hyper-partisans, compromise and cooperation represent betrayal and can spark primary challenges.

That works to the detriment of the majority of Americans who are more moderate in their thinking but are too busy with the rest of their lives to follow the ins and outs of congressional debates. They don’t know if their representatives have put their neck on the line by working with the other side, and won’t reward them in the primary or general for having done so.

Earmarks give those very members who are most adroit at working with the other side a way to distinguish themselves. Voters recognize that legislators who can secure funding for highway expansions or other local priorities are effective at their job and are loathe to give them up.

Though often derided as a symbol of corruption, earmarks actually serve as metric of legislative competence. They’re not perfect, and they can be abused. But their absence gives political rewards to ideologues who can get booked on cable news and punishes legislators who seek to govern. If the GOP wants to be a governing party again, then Senate Republicans should join their House colleagues and embrace a return to pork-barrel spending.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.

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