Monday, February 28, 2011

Earmarks Away

Per Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst political system except for all the rest, even the best political systems have many flaws. So we should take a moment to celebrate an unlikely correction to one of representative democracy’s trouble spots: a spoils system called earmarking, which the U.S. Congress has recently taken away from itself.

Earmarking is the targeting of funds to a Congressional representative’s pet project, often as a way to get that representative’s vote on other legislation. The practice is associated with the term “pork barrel” spending because it allows representatives to bring home the bacon of government dollars to local projects.

Although many earmarked projects are worthy, the system for granting earmarks invites abuse. The classic example is Alaska’s Gravina Island Bridge. A proposed $400 million structure as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, it would connect a town in southeast Alaska with an island that has a small airport and a population of 50 people.

The project was championed by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, then one of the most powerful senators and a big beneficiary of earmarking. However, the audacity of asking for a $400 million “bridge to nowhere,” as it became known by detractors, proved too much. The Gravina Island Bridge earmark did not survive, except as a symbol of what was wrong with earmarks.

The extremity of that case aside, earmarks are a byproduct of a representative democracy. If it’s legal to trade a vote for an earmark, many representatives would consider it serving their constituents’ interests. Such trading is routine enough to have its own name, logrolling.

However, another byproduct of representative democracy is bribing representatives with money. Of course, when someone trades a bag of cash for a vote, we call it payola and say it is illegal. But if a politician trades a vote for an earmark, that’s somehow okay?

Even in the most benign circumstances, earmarks will always have the suspicion of bought votes. Also, if representatives are voting not on an issue’s merits but because they owe logrolling favors, what do those votes mean for policy?

These kind of concerns, and a unique political climate, are what brought down earmarks. The Republican leadership in the House and, with the Democratic White House’s prodding, the Democratic leadership in the Senate agreed to ban earmarks for at least two years.

Political historians will look back on this episode with particular interest. It’s a rare case when an entrenched, bipartisan spoils system is overthrown by those getting the spoils. Good for them.

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