Earmarks: Remember Those?

Not too long ago, I saw David Brooks on one of the TV chat shows. Judy Woodruff asked him a question about congressional dysfunction.

Brooks has an interesting expression when he tries to explain something that might be just slightly unsavory. He tilts his head a little and he has about a one-quarter smile. He looks as if he would prefer that what he was saying was not true. I don’t think it is intentional; it just seems to happen.

It was there when he said, in response to Woodruff’s question,  “of course we don’t have earmarks anymore.”


Earmarks were much maligned. They were another name for pork and they were viewed as wasteful. Good government advocates were filled with joy when the practice of purchasing votes by including unrelated appropriations for pet projects and local good works was stopped.

As is so often the case, there were unforeseen consequences. The power of House and Senate leaders to control their caucuses was diminished when they could no longer sprinkle a few roads and bridges here in there to bring the troops into line.

A Senator or Congressman, who might once have worried that this vote or that would offend his constituents, used to be able to deliver up a ladle of federal pork to smooth ruffled feathers.

No longer.

Now a Senator or Congressman is unmoved from the self-interest of being reelected. If his constituents don’t like the Affordable Care Act, he will vote to repeal it as many times as the opportunity presents itself. If his constituents believe that the government spends too much money, there is no longer very much available that will sway him from voting against government spending whenever he has a chance.

These happen to be examples that would draw criticism of the right but there are plenty of situations in which those on the left have done precisely the same thing.

Some suggest that the government shutdown proves that our government is dysfunctional. Really? Perhaps it is functioning precisely is designed?

One of the primary objectives of the Constitution was to avoid a tyranny of the majority. Checks and balances were carefully put in place so that a consensus would have to be achieved, at least on most major issues. If no such consensus was reached, gridlock ensued.

Earmarks permitted the majority and minority leaders of both the House and Senate to purchase a bit of loyalty with other people’s money. Presumably, this lessened the gridlock. Now, the only people who can bribe a senator or congressman legally are the lobbyists.

Sometimes, all is not as it seems.

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