In 1987, Ronald Reagan became the first president to veto a federal highway bill. It was a gutsy move. The $88 billion measure (the equivalent of $204 billion today) was popular in Congress. It had passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, and Reagan was warned that he had little chance of making his veto stick. But he regarded the bill as wildly exorbitant and decided to make a fight of it, appealing over the heads of Congress to the public.
“This week the Congress sent me a highway construction bill that was loaded with pork-barrel projects,” he said in a radio address. “I haven’t seen so much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” With its 121 earmarks, the bill would bust the budget by $10 billion, Reagan explained, so “I got out my veto pen and used it fast,” telling Congress “to pare away the waste” and “clean this bill up.”
Reagan lost that battle. His veto was overridden, and the bill with all its earmarks became law, including $1 billion for a new tunnel under Boston Harbor. Congress was just beginning to get hooked on earmarks — provisions that direct funds to specific recipients, bypassing the normal criteria for allocating funds — and the practice wasn’t yet widely seen as objectionable. Reagan might have found all that lard intolerable, but most members of Congress saw nothing wrong with such appropriations, which were typically slipped into “must-pass” bills with no debate or public notice.
Lawmakers relished the way earmarks could be exploited for political gain, enabling them to deliver huge favors to influential interests and wealthy constituents back home. Under Republicans and Democrats alike, earmarks surged. “Between 1996 and 2005, the number of annual appropriations earmarks leaped from less than 1,000 to nearly 14,000,” recalls Brian Riedl, a fiscal policy scholar at the Manhattan Institute. The number of earmarks in highway bills alone exploded from 10 in 1982 to 6,371 in 2005.
The number of scandals exploded too. Stories emerged of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who used earmarks to line their pockets. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to prison for bribing members of Congress to secure earmarks for his clients. Earmarks not tainted by corruption were often infuriating boondoggles. The $223 million earmark for an Alaska “bridge to nowhere” was the most infamous example, but there were countless others, including $500,000 for a teapot museum in North Carolina, $3.5 million to restore the statue of a Roman god in Alabama, and $200,000 for a tattoo-removal program in California.
By 2006, voters were telling pollsters that banning pork-barrel spending should be Congress’s No. 1 priority. In 2011, it finally happened. In his State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to veto any bill containing earmarks. Twenty-four years after Reagan’s veto, with bipartisan support, Congress pulled the plug on earmarking.
Now congressional leaders want to plug it back in.
Key Democrats in the House and Senate have let it be known that they are gearing up to revive earmarking — or, as they prefer to euphemize it, “community project funding.” Bringing back earmarks, they claim, will make it easier for Congress to get more done. Important bills will have more support if wavering members can be won over with appropriations custom-tailored for their state or district.
“Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” he told lawmakers in 2018. “I hear so much about . . . the old earmark system — how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”
But as the Globe editorialized at the time, Trump’s recollection was flawed — “both for the magical value he ascribed to earmarks, and for the corruption, mismanagement, and unfairness he left out.” Earmarks are useful to presidents or congressional leaders seeking to boost legislation that cannot succeed on its own merits, and they can help vulnerable incumbents win reelection by showing off their ability to bring home the occasional slab of bacon. But neither of those outcomes is in the public interest. A bill that can’t pass on its own merits shouldn’t pass. An incumbent who has lost the support of voters shouldn’t be reelected. Public funds are supposed to be spent on public purposes, not on wink-and-nod deals intended to benefit “well-connected businesses, campaign donors, and others who could afford a high-priced lobbyist,” to quote Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.
By no means are all Republicans anti-earmark. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma is eager for their return. “This is a matter of allowing members to serve their own constituents,” he insists, defending the idea that Congress should micromanage government appropriations, rather than entrusting the job to federal agencies. “Somebody who has never been to my district probably doesn’t know the needs as well as I do,” says Cole.
It’s a phony argument. Government bureaucracies may not be fonts of wisdom and sensitivity. But an agency’s arm’s-length decision about where to channel public dollars is far more likely to be transparent and defensible than a decision made by a politician desperate to stay popular.
California Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat and deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, urges members of her party to leave earmarks in the dustbin of history. “How taxpayer dollars are spent is one of the most bipartisan issues outside Washington,” she wrote recently. “I cannot in good conscience participate in politically motivated earmarking that puts an elected official’s interest over the national interest.”
The banning of earmarks a decade ago was a genuine reform, one that managed to drain at least a small corner of the Washington swamp. Undoing that reform now would be a grievous step backward. Nothing that is wrong with government will be improved by restoring the pork pipeline.