Getting Over Earmarks

For Republicans, as well as some Democrats and the media, earmarks are a symbol of wasteful spending and harmful quid pro quo. Recently, Republican leaders agreed to place a moratorium on these spending requests, with support from the White House.

Sean Kelly and Scott Frisch, political scientists at California State University, Channel Islands, have a friendlier view of earmarks. In their book Cheese Factories on the Moon, named after a quip from former Sen. Phil Gramm, they make the case that earmarks are important. TAP recently spoke with Kelly on the role these unfairly maligned tools play in American democracy.

Earmarks are actually a fairly arcane subject. What inspired you to write a book about them, and more important, what inspired you to write a defense of them?

Scott, who worked for the Treasury, [Office of Management and Budget], and for Frank Lautenberg back in the early 1990s, actually wrote his dissertation (later a book) on earmarks, doing then what is very common now: combing through appropriations committee reports to identify earmarks.

We started working together, first on House and Senate committee assignments. Our data were drawn from the archived papers of former members. So we were looking at members' committee requests and trying to understand the systematic factors that led to committee assignments and composition. That work became our first book together: Committee Assignments in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As we were finishing up that book, we decided to return to earmarks, but to capitalize once again on the papers of former members. To understand earmarks, we collected earmark requests (this is before the reforms when it was all very secret) so that we could explore the systematic factors related to who asks for what earmarks and who gets them. There is a lot of conjecture out there (e.g., seniority decides who gets earmarks), but one really has to know who is asking for earmarks to see if there is a systematic "bias" in the system.

As we were working on collecting our data, and earmarks began to become a household term, we were discouraged by the quality of the debate and the misunderstanding surrounding the earmarking process. So we decided one night, over beers, that we would take a detour and write a book that any interested individual could read that would demystify the process but also make an argument that earmarks can actually be good.

So, your main argument for earmarks is that they are a method of democratic accountability and allow individual representatives leeway in how federal dollars are spent. Why doesn't this explanation resonate with the public?

Two things here. There definitely is a democratic-accountability argument in our book, but we try to broaden that argument in at least a couple of ways. First, in Chapter 4, "Earmarks and the National Interest," we demonstrate that there are earmarks that have served the national interest. Earmarks for the Predator Drone, earmarks for MRAP vehicles, and the like. But also earmarks that began life in the naked self-interest of its sponsor that wound up delivering national benefits: the case of the Human Genome Project. Briefly, Pete Domenici was looking for a way to preserve jobs for Department of Energy labs in New Mexico. He got a small earmark for this crazy idea to make a map of the human genome. That set into motion a series of events that ended in one of the biggest and potentially most important maps in the history of the world. In short, whether it is concern for good policy or concern about constituents, earmarks can provide national benefits.

The second point is about public opinion. I think activated public opinion is anti-earmark without doubt, and the reportage on the subject reflects that activated opinion. But the Pew survey from earlier in the year showed more than 50 percent of people saying they would be more likely to vote for a member who got earmarks or at least not less likely to vote for an earmarker. So where is public opinion? I don't think it is fully formed on earmarks yet, even though it seems like there is an established public opinion.

Why don't Republicans find this persuasive? After all, they have spent the last two years presenting themselves as the defenders of "small government."

I think that Republicans are seizing on earmarks as an issue to distinguish themselves from the Democrats. It's convenient. But the fact is, and I am sure that you know this, there are fans of earmarks on both sides of the aisle in Congress and in equal proportions. Probably more than half of the interviews we did for the book were with Republicans, most of whom support earmarks. In my view, Republicans should love earmarks. One of their prime complaints about federal legislation is that it has a "one size fits all" quality to it; they complain about the decision-making of "Washington bureaucrats." Earmarks are a way that members can adapt these programs to local needs and conditions; it's a way to overcome the one-size-fits-all syndrome. Earmarks are a way to put forward interests that might be otherwise ignored by Washington bureaucrats.

Do you see anything problematic about earmarks? One incoming Republican committee chair directed millions in earmarks to campaign contributors over the course of several decades. Is there any way we can ensure that earmarks aren't a vector for corruption and quid pro quo?

Sure there are problems. There are cases where members have used earmarks to advance their personal interests. But just because some earmarks have been used in corrupt ways does not mean that all earmarks are corrupt. This is the kind of over generalization that we criticize the mass media for making.

Transparency is the best way to try (though there are no guarantees -- we're dealing with human beings after all) to make it less likely that there will be quid pro quo with regard to campaign contributions. Of course, public funding of campaigns would break the link entirely, but I don't expect to see that happen in my lifetime.

The congressional GOP has instituted a ban on earmarks for the 112th Congress, and already, some members are trying to get around it. What do you think is the likely outcome of this?

They are going to have to find a new name for earmarks. They will have difficulty getting along without them. One is the Michelle Bachman syndrome: People want their members of Congress to provide help for worthy local projects. The other is that earmarks provide the "teaspoon of sugar" that helps the medicine go down, and the Republicans are talking about taking some pretty bitter medicine in the next two years. To make a dent in the deficit, they will have to make significant changes to Social Security, Medicare, and cut defense. These will be unpopular votes to take. An earmark can help a vulnerable member by giving him/her something to claim credit for. Without it, why do they want to cast that difficult vote? Worse yet, why do I want to serve on the Appropriations Committee taking those tough votes and getting nothing to show for it?

Now some may say, "Well it's exactly that kind of 'horse-trading' that we need to get rid of." First, get over it; horse-trading is a part of politics. Anyone who thinks that even our revered Founding Fathers did not engage in horse-trading needs to crack a history book. I think if the Founders were alive today, they'd be blushing over counting slaves as three-fifths of a person in order to get the Southern states on board with the Constitution. That was a political deal, pure and simple.

Let's say Democrats take back the House. Do they reinstate earmarks, or does the anti-earmark position become a regular feature of American politics?

Don't forget: When the Republicans came in in 1995, they "got rid" of earmarks. Within a year, earmarks began to make a comeback, and they continued to increase throughout [Republicans'] time in the majority. There will be "lettermarks" and "phonemarks" where members lobby the bureaucracy outside the view of the public, and that will be to the great advantage of more senior members. One of the reasons that the number of earmarks went up -- as we argue in the book and can show with our data -- is that more requests were coming from more junior members. The earmark process was being democratized. Earmarks have been around for a long, long time (since the beginning really), but they were mostly reserved for more senior and powerful members and members of appropriations. What happened during the 1990s in particular is that rank-and-file members began requesting earmarks, so you see more requests overall and more, albeit smaller, earmarks.

If the Democrats take the House again, I think earmarks do come back, though I think earmarks or something like them will come back in the next couple of years naturally for the reasons mentioned above. And let's not forget that a majority in the Senate of both parties has no intention of giving up earmarks. The issue is not going away; that's for sure. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You may also like