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Tags: earmarks | reform | honest graft | congress

Could Reformed Earmarks Produce a Better Functioning Congress?

Could Reformed Earmarks Produce a Better Functioning Congress?
(Karen Foley/Dreamstime.com)

By    |   Wednesday, 23 May 2018 02:58 PM

President Trump recently suggested that Congress consider the practice of “earmarks,” in which appropriation bills include local projects favored by particular members of Congress. In the most recent issue of American Affairs, I defend a reformed version of earmarks.

George Washington Plunkitt, the leader of the 19th century Tammany Hall machine, insisted on a distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. When acting from honest graft, a politician is simultaneously pursuing both personal interest (including the interest in being re-elected) and the public good. Our system, as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay argued in the Federalist Papers, assumes that our leaders will not be angels but can be guided by self-interest to act in ways that for the most part promote the common good.

As a result of an odd marriage of convenience between Tea Party Republicans and progressive Democrats, spurred by the center-left Citizens against Government Waste and the left-leaning Center for Public Integrity, Congress imposed a total ban on earmarks in 2011. To say the least, Congress’s track record in the seven years since the ban has been something less than stellar.

Simple majority rule brings with it the danger of the tyranny of the majority. A tyrannical majority is one that uses majority rule to impose an unjust result on the rest of the electorate. As economists have demonstrated, this is a special case of a more pervasive problem with majority rule. Majorities can support results that are not only unjust but also inefficient. This is because majority rule does not take into account the voters’ various intensities of interest in issues.

Under simple majority rule, a largely indifferent majority can approve a result that is intensely opposed by everyone in the minority. The solution is a part of normal democratic practice: the process of vote trading, sometimes called “logrolling.” Earmarks are, of course, merely a special case of logrolling. They enable political minorities (even a minority of one) to have an impact on policy, despite an apathetic or even hostile majority.

Article I of the Constitution of the United States invests the power of the purse exclusively in the hands of the Congress. It is ironic that the Tea Party, which began as a movement to restore founding principles, should have effected a change that takes us further away from our original constitutional design, giving administrative agencies and career civil servants in the executive branch power that righty belongs exclusively to the Congress.

There is good reason to give the power of the purse to Congress. A local representative is more likely to know and respond to the needs of his district than is some bureaucrat in Washington. In addition, moving these decisions from the legislative to the executive branch does not eliminate pork: it simply replaces legislative with presidential pork. Presidential pork is much more dangerous, because it so much harder to identify and control.

The earmark system was admittedly imperfect. At times it generated foolish extravagances, like the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” and it undoubtedly created opportunities for truly dishonest graft. In addition, the sheer volume of earmarks can be burdensome and time-consuming. The number peaked at 15,000 in 2005, a volume that clogged the arteries of congressional committees. However, these problems are fixable. I recommend a five-point reform:

1. Limit earmarks to appropriation bills that come in under budget.

2. Limit to bills produced in the normal way, through appropriation committees. Keep the ban on earmarks added to omnibus spending bills or continuing resolutions.

3. Limit earmarks to projects vetted by public hearings before the appropriate committees.

4. Require prior approval for each earmark from the majority party leader.

5. Limit total number of earmarks to four per member per year (around 2000 total).

By limiting earmarks to bills that come in under budget (Proposal 1), we provide an incentive to all members of Congress to keep total spending under control. Earmarks become then a weapon against fiscal irresponsibility.

Proposal 2 provides members of Congress of both parties with a powerful incentive to work together in a more orderly fashion.

Abuses like the “bridge to nowhere” can be eliminated by requiring all earmarks to be vetted in public hearings (Proposal 3). No member of Congress will dare to propose earmarks that could backfire through embarrassing public exposure of extravagance, personal interest, or folly.

An effective Congress requires disciplined parties. Prior approval by party leaders for earmarks (Proposal 4) will keep party members in a stable and enduring coalition, ensuring both coherency and accountability to the public.

Finally, the greatest practical problem with earmarks in the years before 2011 was the sheer volume. Proposal 5 puts a reasonable limit to the number of earmarks added per year.

Rob Koons is a professor of philosophy specializing in logic, metaphysics, philosophical theology, and political thought. He is the author and editor of six books, including "The Atlas of Reality: A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics" (with Tim Pickavance, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017). He has been active in conservative circles, both nationally and in Texas, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the National Association of Scholars, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, and the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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President Trump recently suggested that Congress consider the practice of “earmarks,” in which appropriation bills include local projects favored by particular members of Congress.
earmarks, reform, honest graft, congress
Wednesday, 23 May 2018 02:58 PM
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