Buried within the 2,700-page omnibus spending bill unveiled early Wednesday that would fund the federal government through September is something called “member-directed spending.” It might well be the single most important thing in the bill if you care about Congress actually passing legislation.
See, “member-directed spending” is just a fancy name for earmarks – a system by which federal spending in a certain district or state can be appended to legislation as a sweetener for the members of Congress representing those areas.
Need an example? Drive through West Virginia and you’ll see all sorts of highways and byways named after Robert C. Byrd, the long-serving senator from the Mountain State.
Earmarks had long been part of the legislative process as a way to grease the wheel of bill-passing.
But beginning in earnest with Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign for president, earmarking began to be regarded as a bad thing. McCain was a longtime opponent of earmarks – known derisively as “pork” to Beltway insiders – and would regularly call out what he believed to be over-the-top pet projects inserted into bills by lawmakers.
“233 million for a bridge to nowhere,” intoned a narrator in an ad McCain ran during that election. “Outrageous. Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable. A million dollars for a Woodstock Museum – in a bill sponsored by Hillary Clinton. Predictable. Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man. John McCain.”
Although McCain lost that race, former House Speaker John Boehner, himself a longtime opponent of so-called “pork barrel spending,” saw his chance. As part of Republicans’ 2010 campaign for Congress, Boehner targeted the elimination of earmarks as a way to signal to the average voter that it was time to change the way Washington did business.
When Republicans retook the House majority in that election, Boehner did exactly as he had promised – he got rid of earmarks entirely.
It seemed, at the time, like a smart political move. People were sick and tired of the insider game played by those in Washington – the massive earmarking scandal involving California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham had been national news earlier in the decade – and banning these pet projects seemed like a way to get corruption (or the appearance of corruption) out of politics.
Notice that I used the word “seemed” in that last paragraph. Because the actual impact of banning earmarks was very different than 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. 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 have influence in Congress.
(The irony is not lost on me that the Freedom Caucus, which Boehner helped to empower by banning earmarks, were responsible for running him out of the speakership in 2015.)
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.