I’m writing this a few hours after the election was called for Biden/Harris. The talk is now all about rebuilding consensus, reaching across the aisle, and inclusiveness. This seems a perfect time to republish a modest proposal I wrote a couple of years ago–bring back earmarks. We can do this.
Earmarks and Golden Fleeces
Back in 2010, the sometimes maudlin, often wine-swilling, and always chain smoking Speaker of the House, John Boehner, announced he was going to end earmarks. You remember earmarks? Those pet projects that every Congresspersonage toted to Washington, tried to shoehorn into a random bill on subsidies for American goat farmers, then go home and brag about bringing home the bacon? And we should bring earmarks back.
For a long time, I was adamant that earmarks were absolute evils and needed to be purgesd from our Congress. Now keep in mind, I came of age in Illinois, which is right next to Wisconsin. When I wore a younger man’s voter registration card, the Senior Senator and Hair Transplant Victim from Wisconsin, William Proxmire, used to give out his monthly Golden Fleece. This was awarded for government financial misfeasance, the lion’s share of which were awarded to earmarked pork projects.
We all loved Prox. Besides his doll’s-hair scalp, he didn’t take any donations for his last two election campaigns. Both of these cost less than $200 out of his own pocket—for the registration fees to get on the ballot. He took Joseph McCarthy’s seat when that lunatic wingnut evil jamoke finally drank and drugged himself to death in 1957.
I adored Bill Proxmire. He was unabashed in his loathing of the pork barrel. His monthly pressers in which he announced the Golden Fleece were cynical guilty pleasures of the first order.
North to Alaska
Alaska is largely responsible for the end of earmarks. This involved what is undoubtedly the most famous bridge since the London one fell down. It was a pet project earmarked by the Very Senior Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens. The guy had been in the Senate forever and had some serious juice, but he got a little greedy. This particular 2005 earmark was like an elephant ear-mark, costing a cool (even for Alaska) $233 million. And the bridge would connect an island with 50 people to the booming metropolis of 8,000 that is Ketchikan
Even giving credit for the way-cool name, the Rest of America considered Ketchikan a rather small rural county seat. The price tag seemed a trifle excessive. Surprising no one but Senator Stevens, it became an issue in the 2008 election as the soundbite Bridge to Nowhere. Which was deeply hurtful to those 50 lonely and shivering souls on Gravina Island.
Since both President Obama and Speaker Boehner opposed to earmarks, the death watch began, with the pork barrel gasping its last in 2010. Requiescat in pace. I confess to being thrilled at the time. Clean and transparent government! Go America!
Greasing the Wheels
I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Just as the earmark kicked the bucket, Congress was becoming more ideologically polarized than any time since the 1850s. I’m not making any political value judgments here. I believe 99% of Americans of every political stripe would agree with that statement today. And this occurred just as we were giving up the best—and maybe last—mechanism for incentivizing compromises. And it’s compromises, large and small, that elected representative government requires to keep the trains running on time. Which is why we need to bring back earmarks to grease the legislative process.
Look at it this way. Seeking compromise means asking someone to give up at least part of something they dearly desire. Most people, including rats in a Skinner box, are hardwired to avoid pain whenever possible. It’s a survival adaptation thing. If you want someone to accept some pain by compromising, it helps to offer something to buffer that pain. I give you the purpose of the earmark.
It works this way. Congressperson X ran as a conservative Scourge of All Things Profligate and Liberal. You’re asking him to vote, say, to raise housing subsidies for poor people. It’s a lot more likely you’re going to get him grudgingly to yes if you give him something to take home to his voters. The storyline would go something like this:
Constituent: You betrayed your campaign promises and principles by voting for that!
Congressman X: Yes, I compromised a little on that vote. But in exchange, I got funding for that new $20 million dairy cattle artificial insemination laboratory in Gopher Prairie! And it comes with 50 jobs!!! Which is exactly how many people live on Gravina Island, Alaska!!!
Constituent: Really? Then never mind.
Seeking that Elusive Win-Win
You see how that works? It’s institutionalized bribery, but for a higher good. It helps get the nation’s business done by removing the zero-sum approach to legislating. Earmarks allow a level of win-win to offset the “if you win, I lose” approach driven entirely by ideology.
It being 2020, I miss earmarks. I mean, I really miss them. With the kind of aching longing with which I miss Frosted Dutch Apple Pop-Tarts. Damn you, Kellogg! In our rush for institutional purity (which is mostly a Good Thing) and our fetishizing of transparency (ditto), we jettisoned our common-sense understanding of human nature. And of laboratory rats and toaster pastries, for that matter.
Perhaps Mary Poppins said it best—a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In our Current Political Environment, legislating has instead become a never-ending process of one side trying to force a bucketful of castor oil down the other side’s throats. Not good. And yet another reason to bring back earmarks.
It’s Not All About the Benjamins
I’ve also come to understand that it’s not all about money and the efficient spending thereof. My thoughts on this began to change when I lived in Italy for three years back in the ’90s. Here’s a couple of factoids that will make The Average American’s head explode. First, we used to ride the train to Venice 45 miles away. The train stopped at some one-cavallo town. At each stop, six Italian Guys in FS (State Railways, but in Italian) uniforms waved little flags and blew whistles and other needless stuff. I mean, there were two old ladies and a farmer with a chicken getting off at these podunk stations. Second, in my little village of Dardago, we got our trash collected five times a week. Seriously.
I chuckled about this with Kay-Kay for weeks. Finally, I laughingly mentioned these to Dr. Luigina, an Italian lawyer colleague of mine. She stared back without the slightest understanding why I found the station gaggles or garbage pickups at all amusing.
But this fine lady has been nothing if not patient with me for all the 25 years I’ve known her. So she produced a copy of the Italian Constitution. It has 129 articles. Article 4 says, “The Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to work and promotes those conditions which will make this right effective.”
American Exceptionalism Isn’t So Exceptional
Whoa. Can you imagine THAT in the US Constitution? People have a right to a job and the Government’s responsible for making sure they do? (That sound you hear is Ronald Reagan rolling over in his sunny California grave. Accompaniment by Barry Goldwater howling from the Afterlife.) And this explains all the Guys Waving Things in the Italian train stations and the shockingly frequent trash pickup. It’s about work for people, per Article 4 of the (Italian) Constitution.
The teaching point I learned in Italy was that some things are as important as maximizing efficiency or strict budget discipline. Maybe more important. Like providing the dignity of work for as many citizens as possible. Or doing whatever it takes to accomplish the people’s business. You know, earmarks.
Honestly, I’d fund a hundred Bridges to Nowhere today if it meant Congress could find compromises for solving immigration, securely funding Social Security and Medicare, caring for the million vets traumatized by recent wars, and finding a way to get affordable medical care for all Americans.
Yep, I miss them. We should bring back those uncomfortable earmarks.