Two Cheers For the Return of Earmarks?

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Washington DC, earmarks are b-a-a-a-a-ck:

House Democratic leaders are proceeding with plans to bring back earmarks for the 117th Congress, according to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer….“There are three candidates for chair of the Appropriations Committee. All have indicated they are for congressional initiatives, congressional add-ons with the structure I’ve just talked about — transparency when you ask, when it’s given, when it’s on the floor,” Hoyer said.

So how do I feel about this? In the past, I’ve defended earmarks as a fairly harmless bit of horse-trading that helps Congress run more smoothly and produces a little more bipartisan cooperation. They don’t cost anything, since they redirect spending rather than increasing it, and the total amount of redirected spending is never more than a percent or two of the total discretionary budget. As long as it’s transparent, what’s the harm?

Today, though, I’m a little less sure about this. In the end, I suppose I still favor allowing earmarks, but I’m pretty skeptical about my original reasoning for them: namely that the ability to bestow earmarks helps party leaders build bipartisan majorities for tricky legislation. This was certainly the case back in the days of Tip O’Neill, and as recently as a few years ago I could convince myself that it was still true. But today? We now live in the era of QAnon and Donald Trump, which makes the hardliners of the tea party look like a bunch of creampuffs. At this point, it’s not clear that anything will produce bipartisan cooperation. Mitch McConnell’s singular goal is to produce enough misery to make Joe Biden a one-term president, and that’s it. The rest of his party is behind him on this, earmarks be damned.

But I might be wrong about this. Perhaps members of Congress are more mercenary than I think. Bringing back earmarks is worth a try, but I have to say that I’m more skeptical of their utility than I was even a few years ago.

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