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.