The New Political Realism: Transactional Politics and Earmarks

Last week, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post reported that there was “significant support” within the House Republican conference for bringing back earmarks.  Republicans eliminated earmarks when they took the House majority in 2010 as part of “political reforms” that would end “corruption” in Congress.

Cillizza’s piece argues, as many of us have also suggested, that this ban is one example of the misguided pursuit of “political purity” that has contributed to making the political process more dysfunctional.  Of course, voting in favor of restoring earmarks would be political dynamite for any individual member; it’s no surprise that Speaker Paul Ryan has vetoed the proposal for now.  But the fact that the issue even has significant support within the Republican conference and that journalists like Cillizza are pressing the case for restoring earmarks is noteworthy.

Here are some excerpts from his essay:

But politics — real politics — isn’t a theoretical discussion among political scientists. And if you believe that Congress works better when it, um, actually works, then you should be rooting like hell that Ryan changes his mind if/when the possibility of a return to earmarking comes to the floor for avote. . . .

Politics works best when compromise is incentivized, not scorned. Earmarks helped to do just that. They were a lever to pull on the way to the presumed end goal: dealmaking. Without them, compromise became a dirty word, and the GOP leadership — Boehner chief among them — paid a price. His decision to step down from the speakership (and Congress) was fueled by an inability to rally the bulk of the Republican Conference behind proposals he supported. He couldn’t do that because he was, effectively, fighting with one hand tied behind his back because of the earmark ban.

Cillizza references this conclusion, from political scientist Diana Evans 2004 study of earmarking, Greasing the Wheels:  Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress:

‘The irony is this: pork barreling, despite its much maligned status, gets things done.’ ”


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