The late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was often criticized as the “King of Pork” for directing federal dollars to his home state. In his autobiography Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields he wrote, “The Washington critics of ‘pork’ had a full-time job trying to keep up with me.”
Byrd went to his grave defending his willingness—including his tenure as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee—to fund special projects in West Virginia. “Why should we quibble over monies spent in our own country for the benefit of our own people, and cynically denounce such investments as ‘pork,’… while at the same time we hand out hundreds of millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money to other countries all over the globe without even a murmur?”
One the favorite methods of Byrd and other members of congress to send money to their state or district was through the “earmark” system. That allowed individual members to include specific requests for money for certain projects or programs. But eight years ago Congressional Republican leaders banned earmarks in hopes of reducing federal spending and improving the credibility of government.
It is evident now that neither happened. Congressional approval is at an all-time low and the federal debt has increased from $13 trillion in 2010 to nearly $22 trillion today. Additionally, Congress has found it nearly impossible to compromise on meaningful legislation because earmarks, which were once important bargaining chips, are no longer available.
But now, incoming House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) wants to bring back earmarks. Douglas Farrar, a former policy advisor to Congress and now the Director of Public Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that earmarks might just get members of Congress who normally disagree to find some common ground if they could get something for their state in return.
“Earmarks act like money in the economy of Congress,” Farrar writes. “You can trade it, you can bargain with it and you can use it to get people to work together. Party and committee leadership can say to lawmakers who are wavering on supporting a bill, ‘what priority in your district can I help you with in order to get your support for my proposal?’”
Farrar says earmarks are an important carrot “in a Congress that has tried for the last eight years to work with only sticks.”
He points out that Hoyer and others who are willing to support earmarks will have to overcome the perception of corruption and waste by having a fair and transparent system so the public can see exactly where the money is going. Full disclosure might help prevent projects like the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” that received a $223 million earmark.
“Earmarks are a bad word for making good things happen,” said Farrar. “They represent an insignificant amount of federal spending, they grease the legislative pipeline in Congress, they provide funding for many important projects, and they are part of a constitutionally important role for Congress.”
Somewhere Robert C. Byrd is smiling.