Update to ‘Earmarks’

To further the idea that the legislative burden on state legislatures is higher than on the national legislature (from this post), here’s this, a table showing how much time each state’s legislature spends in the office compared to the hours required for a full time job. The table breaks states down into red, white, and blue states (cute) in order of decreasing time spent in session.

Key notes:

  • 40 of the 50 states have hybrid or part-time legislatures, and of those, 17 have half time (compared to a full time job). Four of those (Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas) have biennial sessions, which puts them in quarter time to three-eights time ranges.
  • Time on the job includes reelection campaigns. The time spent relative to a full time job numbers, then, are overstated, since full time jobs don’t require semi-annual efforts to rally support. (Thinking of holding a job as a continuous reelection campaign/continuously lobbying to keep one’s job is a bit depressing, and ‘work because it needs to be done’ and ‘work done strictly to impress the voters (the HR department)’ would be too difficult to disentangle anyway.)
  • The seventeen blue states all but require their legislators to hold other jobs. Unless these legislators are outstanding at compartmentalizing, average compensation of $16k for legislative work and their additional work burdens should increase distraction/decrease time and attention available for particular legislative projects.
  • States without full time legislatures also have fewer aides per representative. While there may be diminishing returns to scale with aides, the drop off in marginal gain from one to two aides, two to three aides, etc. is probably not substantial enough that those blue state representatives with an average of 1.2 aides available to them aren’t at a significant disadvantage when compared to white state legislators, and even if the marginal gain has fallen a bit in the 3 to 9 range, 6 more aides at a lower marginal gain still sounds like a boon for red state legislators. Add to this claim the table’s footnote 3 — “Ratio of total legislative staff to number of legislators. This includes central legislative staff offices, so it is not a measure of how many staff work directly for each legislator.” — and blue state legislators may have an average of fewer than 1 personal aides.

So I’ll stick with the idea that for some states, earmarks can be significantly more responsive and targeted than what the state budget has time to throw together.



There’s a disconnect between what we idealistically expect from Congresspeople and what we cynically expect from Congresspeople.

Idealistically, we expect some kind of “service to country” motive to ground most of their decisions. Some candidates run on that kind of platform. Massachusetts’s democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren comes to mind; her big issue is financial regulation despite Boston’s having the sixth most financial activities jobs in July 2011. As an alternative, we have Clays and Websters and JQ Adamses sprinkled throughout Congressional history to remind us of what Congresspeople should be, while neglecting that JQ Adams returned to Congress after losing his presidential reelection bid, that Clay unsuccessfully tried three times to transmute his senatorial prowess into the presidency, and that Webster… I don’t actually know anything questionable about Webster’s congressional record, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. While Congress has a -63.8% spread on its approval/disapproval rating, it’s unlikely that anyone really thinks “service to country” is the main congressional motivation outside of that strange 14.6% group that approves.

Cynically, we think congresspeople are doing whatever they can to gain reelection. Reports that they spend between thirty and seventy percent of their time fundraising only reinforce this idea. If that’s the case, though, they’re pretty good at what they do, and the cop-out answer here is easy: how am I supposed to serve my country if I’m not in office?

And if that’s the goal, then both houses are really good at it, which makes the earmark/approval rating/reelection problem make sense — an easy way to enrage 49 out of 50 states while borderline guaranteeing yourself reelection would be making sure that, for instance, of the 2.08 trillion dollar 2010 federal budget, a few hundred million dollars (if you’re feeling really ambitious) get shuffled into the right places in your state, rewarding your donors, employing your constituents, and bringing Ron Paul one step closer to a heart attack.

Except that doesn’t really make sense at all. The potential for corruption just isn’t big enough. Even if every Senator in 2010 had asked for as much in earmarks as Thad Cochran, who asked for the most, the total ($56 billion) would have been about 2.7% of the operating budget for that year, and the dropoff from Cochran to the rest of the pack is significant. That percentage falls, obviously, with larger budgets, and 2011’s budget was $3.36 trillion, or 61 percent larger than 2010’s.

If we really want to be upset about funding going particular, undemocratic places, we’d be better served by investigating recipients of military spending and of interest on the public debt.

I’m still confused about why exactly people hate earmarks, so I tried the octogenarian Google search method (Googling a complete sentence; here: “Why do people hate earmarks?”), and of course the discussion existed in Yahoo Answers. The second answer is funny and kind of instructive: “I say, let the Free Market decide where those earmarks are going to be spent!”

Something like the ‘free market’ does determine the direction of earmarks. In his paper “Giving the People What They Want? The Distribution of Earmarks in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Jeffrey Lazarus (citing Diana Evans 1994) argues that earmarks are a kind of intrachamber currency. It makes sense, then, that “powerful and well-placed members procure more earmarks than other members of Congress,” since the value of their support for a bill, resolution, etc. is worth more. Since ‘real’ currency is illegal to obtain in exchange for votes, powerful members accept the only currency legislators can exchange with each other. Free marketeers should be pleased rather than annoyed that legislation determined not by messy if noble ideas about national service, delusions of grandeur, and ethics, but instead by a naturally arising informal exchange system.

The earmark process reinforces this power dynamic. Lazarus writes that

The process begins when an individual member submits a request to the chair of an Appropriations subcommittee. These chairs each have a fixed pool of money available to them from which they can grant members’ requests and enjoy a very high level of discretion over which requests get funded. Requests which are granted are placed in the legislation, though typically after the subcommittee has approved the bill. […] As a result, most individual earmarks never receive a direct vote at any state of the appropriations process. (emphasis in original)

With a “fixed pool of money,” of course subcommittee chairs would allocate earmarks to the “pet projects” of more powerful members whose votes and influence are much more important to a bill’s fate.

There’s still the other free market criticism, though, that earmarks are somehow less efficient. This idea is probably behind “I say, let the Free Market decide where those earmarks are going to be spent!” and is certainly behind the “pet project” criticism. Those criticizing earmarks as pet projects are implying that local interests are not an appropriate or efficient use of national money, but that claim should be examined.

First, it’s not as if all local projects are insignificant or as if the local projects would be categorically unfunded at the state level. Instead of handing each state a pile of money, saying “try to find something to do with this,” and scurrying away, earmarks ensure that some of that money will be spent on new projects and thus decrease the legislative burden on states whose legislative branches meet less frequently than the national legislature. Texas’s State House of Representatives, for instance, meets for 140 days every two years, so the only way to change spending patterns in off years is to effect change at the national level. Since Congress sets a budget annually, it can in fact be more responsive to changing conditions than can some states.

Second, representatives from Montana are likely better able to tell where money ought to be spent in Montana than representatives from Florida. This isn’t a failing of representatives from Florida; it just happens to be unlikely that a voter with a local problem in Montana would contact Marco Rubio. Actually, scratch that, he’s in the news all the time because of the Veep question. It is unlikely though that this hypothetical Montanan would contact Ileana Ros-Letinen, who for some reason is the only rep without a picture on the Florida Elected List page. Even if this Montanan did contact Marco Rubio, though, the chances that Marco Rubio would ever see the mail or put it near the top of his priority list (he has voters in Florida to worry about, after all) are slim, while any of Montana’s three total reps would have a stronger reason to pay attention to and learn about what was behind this voter’s concerns.

More generally, projects with national appeal must necessarily be broad enough not to exclude large groups and to include general interests, while pet projects are valuable because they exclude large groups and include particular interests.

Third, which earmarks a representative pursues are a better indication of that representative’s future behavior than any campaign rhetoric could be. Not only, as Lazarus (citing John Ferejohn 1974) writes, do earmarks show that a member “can do things for [voters] in Washington,” they also show what kinds of things the member is likely to do.

In sum, then, earmarks ought to ensure that more budgeted money is spent, ensure that that money is spent on more specific projects, and give voters better information on which to base their next election choices. Whether or not voters then do so is another question.

But this is messy. Earmarks themselves may be positive both for voters and for legislators, but our rhetoric about earmarks is overwhelmingly negative. Never mind what we may think about Other People’s Congresspeople (OPC), we aren’t allowed to vote for or against them. As a result, Andrew Gelman and Gary King (of UC Berkeley and Harvard, respectively), include “constituency service” as one of their assumptions of the sources of incumbency advantage without comment and without explanation (in “Estimating Incumbency Advantage without Bias,” 1990, American Journal of Political Science). This is to say, the ‘costs’ (if there are costs) of earmarks are distributed generally, while the benefits accrue particularly to the Congressperson who pursues them.

This may just be a case of sociological ambivalence. By occupying the role of “politician,” legislators put themselves in a position in which they are asked alternately for service to their region at the expense of focusing on national interests and the opposite. What results is a collection of individuals whose behavior must be inconsistent, who must alternatively act to pursue the narrow objectives Some People and pose as noble servants of the will of The People, and who must treat their critics with a mix of patience and understanding. At the same time, they must act as if they are not acting inconsistently, with the risk being that if the poses are too transparent, they encourage political nihilism.

I don’t mean to apologize for politicians. Their situation is not one that inspires sympathy. I do hope, though, that we can be more realistic in our rhetoric about earmarks and our political expectations.

Sober Second Thought

I was shelving books (kind of) and started at the beginning of the alphabet. It’s not really a fair trick to play. I started with Albee and Atwood and Austen and Bronte and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Faulkner and Hemingway and Hesse and Huxley and thought man, writing a novel, right? That is the way to make yourself known as a thinker. I should write a novel. It is, in fact, embarrassing that I haven’t written a novel, or even anything that I can later in life turn into a modern-day Of Human Bondage. Then I reached the end of the alphabet. Jennifer Weiner is at the end of the alphabet.

I’d wanted to participate in a tradition in which the author of such gems as Good in Bed and Then Came You is a modern exemplar.

There are, what, two kinds of novels? “Serious” and “pop?” Forget it, I’m not interested anymore. If I write a pop novel, I have to convince 17 million 14 year-old girls that it’s good so that they’ll convince their older sisters it’s good so that they’ll convince their boyfriends to see it in theatres when Paramount decides it simply must have the rights so I can release a new version of the book within two years with no significant changes except that the reader, previously burdened with the task of imagining the images described in the text, can now rely on the dramatically lit actors/actresses on the front cover. I must seduce millions of tweens with vapid language and transparent re-imaginings of old stories disguised as new stories. The alternative is the seduction of millions of middle-aged women by writing bondage into tired romance narratives and throwing a pair of handcuffs in monochrome on the cover. Or vampires. There are always vampires. There’s a thriving category of lit right now that could be summed up “holy hell, women like sex and have personalities?”

Serious novels are written to be hard. Johnathan Franzen nails the “serious novels” crowd’s rationale:

difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel’s author has disdained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. Easy fiction has little value, the argument goes. Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having.

But then, having read the serious novel, the crowd arrives at an Idea, or perhaps at a Non-Idea, or perhaps at an antithesis through which they’re supposed to work to become Better People (or at least Better Read People) who can express the Idea/Non-Idea in a few sentences that will Change Their (Well Read) Friends’ Lives. The obvious question is why not just write that idea?

Here’s one idea: hard work and the pursuit of excellence do not guarantee fulfillment. Here’s another: personal doubts can undermine satisfaction with publicly appreciated work. Here’s a third: ethics is malleable, and quickly pronouncing judgment on a system too complicated to understand quickly will often result in error. You want 500 plus pages of these? Here’s a method: let’s start with a child so the main character can lose, regain, and lose again his innocence, find himself, and Learn an Important Lesson (looking at you, Philip Carey). Please.

Poets know what they’re doing. I don’t mean like T.S. Eliot. I don’t mean people who need forty pages of notes and six languages to explain that they’re smarter than you are. I don’t really know who I mean. Maybe Keats. Maybe Renee Gladman.

I’m not sure where this leaves me. I still prefer harder books. Life of Pi and its ilk aren’t going to become satisfying suddenly just because I’ve survived an hour of believing that long fiction may not be worthwhile to aspire to writing, but it’s not like I can deliberately switch to being open-minded about pop books. While I’m not convinced that long, hard fiction is inherently good for lit, I’m still less convinced that pop/deliberately easy fiction isn’t inherently bad for it.

My new opinion about books is that I’d like to open a bar called “Artless Bastards.” It will be a lending library, except instead of filling out a form or keeping up with records in a computer, the condition for borrowing a book will be leaving one in its place. That rule should solve (mitigate) assurance of quality problems and art oligopoly problems.


I resumed reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil, a collection of his unfinished work (unfinished work is the way to go), and just found this:

When it comes to [Osvaldo] Soriano, you have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built. I don’t mean he’s bad. As I’ve said: he’s good, he’s fun, he’s essentially an author of crime novels or something vaguely like crime novels, whose main virtue — praised at length by the always perceptive Spanish critical establishment — is his sparing use of adjectives, a restraint lost, in any case, after his fourth or fifth book. Hardly the basis for a school. Apart from Soriano’s kindness and generosity, which are said to be great, I suspect that his sway is due to sales, to his accessibility, his mass readership, although to speak of a mass readership when we’re really talking about twenty thousand people is clearly an exaggeration. What Argentine writers have learned from Soriano is that they, too, can make money. No need to write original boks, like Cortázar or Bioy, or total novels, like Cortázar or Marechal, or perfect stories, like Cortázar or Bioy, and no need, especially, to squander your time and health in a lousy library when you’re never going to win a Nobel Prize anyway. All you have to do is write like Soriano. A little bit of humor, lots of Buenos Aires solidarity and camaraderie, a dash of tango, a worn-out boxer or two, an old but solid Marlowe. But, sobbing, I ask myself on my knees, solid where? Solid in heaven, solid in the toilet of your literary agent? What kind of nobody are you, anyway? You have an agent? And an Argentine agent, no less? (69-70)

At least, apparently, if I have doubts about literature and its production, I have company in Bolaño. That’s comforting, in a way.