For the past several years, Congress has been operating under a formal ban of earmarks -- tiny bits of spending that members previously enjoyed inserting into legislation to benefit projects and constituents in their home states. Earmarks have always had a checkered history. On their best days, they get referred to as "pork-barrel spending," as if having a barrel of delicious pork is somehow a bad thing. On their worst days, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was riding herd over the process and using it as his own personal means of meting out rewards and punishments.
"This is corrupt!" said a bunch of people repeatedly, and so round about 2010, Congress began "reforming" earmarks. Spurred on by well-meaning good-government types and hacky deficit hysterics -- along with political partisans who enjoyed characterizing their opponents' earmarks as an abuse of the process -- the whole notion of getting rid of earmarks started to sound like a good idea. But it actually was a terrible and stupid idea, and we need to un-reform earmark reform just as hard as we can. We should not stop until earmark reform is sorry for ever having existed.
Over at The New York Times, columnist Thomas Edsall notes that while earmark reform (along with various, equally demented deregulations of campaign finance law) has been sold as something that would inevitably lead to people becoming less cynical about American politics, it hasn't lived up to the hype. Instead, it has only "intensified the public's hostility to both politicians and the political process."
Edsall cites a Gallup poll finding that between 2006 and 2013, "the percentage of Americans convinced that corruption was 'widespread throughout the government in this country' grew from 59 to 79 percent." A similar study from American National Election Studies found that over the past half-decade, the share of voters who said that government is "run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" soared from 29 percent to 79 percent, while the number who said that government is "run for the benefit of the people" shrank from 64 percent to 19 percent.
These numbers are perhaps more significant than Congress' approval ratings -- which, by the way, are lower than the approval ratings of Sharknadoes that mate with dung heaps and then show up together drunk at your cousin's bar mitzvah.
And for what, exactly? As Edsall notes, a hot load of nothing:
The ban on earmarks, adopted after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, has tied the hands of congressional leaders. Still, earmarks, despised by reformers on the left and right, served an essential political purpose. The House and Senate leadership and ranking committee members used earmarks to persuade their reluctant colleagues to vote for or against key bills; they used them as a tool to forge compromise and as a carrot to produce majorities.
The prohibition on earmarks has done nothing to restore respect for Congress. Just the opposite: It has contributed to legislative gridlock and increased the difficulty of winning enactment of tax and immigration reform.
So, basically, this "reform" was undertaken to make Congress better, and it's made it intractably worse across every conceivable dimension, up to and including the fact that nobody thinks that Congress is getting any less corrupt.
Erikka Knuti, a former congressional staffer who now serves as a Democratic strategist for the communications firm Purple Strategies, is Eat the Press' favorite American to talk with about how stupid earmark reform is. So we talked! She told me that while she never thought to measure public attitudes on perceptions of government corruption in relation to the banning of earmarks, the poll numbers reinforce her position that earmark reform has been bad for the country. "I love [Tom Edsall's] article," she says.
It's not that the move to get rid of earmarks wasn't well-intentioned, Knuti says. "I don't think we had any idea what we were doing. I think we thought it would just be the difference between 'bringing home the bacon' to 'bringing home the turkey bacon.' I think we thought we'd just end up with 'Earmark Lite.' I don't think we knew that we were going to remove all of the grease to the legislative wheels whatsoever. Now there's no incentive to compromise."
So are earmarks simply a form of "good corruption"? Knuti says that even this is the wrong way to think about them:
EAT THE PRESS: Edsall, in his column, says that earmarks are, essentially, "honest graft."
KNUTI: I don't know if I'd call it "graft" because it's not like it goes into the pocket of the member. It goes into their district. An earmark for a highway off-ramp -- the congressman doesn't put that in his backyard. That's the taxpayers who get that back.
EAT THE PRESS: It seems to me that if you're a member of Congress, you have to accept that you're going to lose some legislative battles, but you used to be able to still create some tangible public good. "We fought hard to defeat Obamacare, but we couldn't get it done. But I got you this bridge." Now we're left with members going back to their district saying, "Sorry our infrastructure is crumbling, but the good news is that I voted to defund the non-existent organization once known as ACORN four more times. That's the bedpost they notch."
KNUTI: You used to be able to look at and ask, "What did my congressman do for me? Well, he got me that bridge. I know we still have Obamacare and I wanted him to end it and he hasn't been able to do that yet, but at least we have that bridge." When you look back and you read, constitutionally, what the purpose of Congress is, it's to tax and spend. Their purpose isn't necessarily pure policy. It is fundamentally to spend money, the people's money. And earmarks were a way of dividing up the pie, so when you came home, you used to have to say, "This is what I did for you."
But when you can't point to anything, all you can say is, "Well, I took this symbolic vote, or I tried to follow this ideological philosophy." So it puts more emphasis on ideology because you can't point to anything else. The only thing you can come back with is a purity scorecard, not an overpass.
The average person is going to drive over that overpass more times than they can directly feel the impact of the Export-Import Bank.
EAT THE PRESS: How are voters back home even supposed to evaluate their congressperson if they expect more than this id-driven ideological warfare? What's the measure?
KNUTI: At this point, it's impossible to tell who is a good congressperson or a bad congressperson any more. I went on a Senate Press Secretaries Association trip up to New York, and we met with [Daily Show host] Jon Stewart, who has always had this thing for [the late Sen.] Ted Stevens and how much pork Ted Stevens brought home to his district. And he asked, "Is it fair that he gets to bring more home to Alaska?" to this room of 70 press secretaries. And so I thought, "Well, I got this," and I told him, "Yes, because everyone else gets to elect a senator as well. Turns out Alaska just has a better one. In any sport, in any game, there are some players that are better than others."
And so right now, as long as a congressman doesn't take a picture of himself naked, you look like a pretty good congressman because there is no measurement.
And if people start to think, "Well, Congress isn't doing anything for me. Who are they doing stuff for?" the answer is "the other guy." Which gets back to this sense of corruption. When your congressman comes back to their district with nothing tangible but the promise to fight for this or that, with no results, what's the difference between that and a snake oil salesman?
EAT THE PRESS: I think in the popular consciousness, though, when people think of government corruption, they do think about things like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."
KNUTI: But the Bridge to Nowhere was never built! The earmark abuse was caught. The system worked! It came out; people said, "Oh, that sounds completely unreasonable"; and it was pulled out of the bill. It never happened. And that's the problem of people pointing to that as earmark abuse. That was an example of transparency correcting a potential abuse.
I mean, to be honest, I think a Bridge to Nowhere sounds like a bargain at this point, after four years of complete incompetence and the inability to do anything. We've seen the government shut down; we almost defaulted on our credit. What's a Bridge to Nowhere these days? Would that really have been as bad compared to what we have now? Nobody benefits from a government shutdown; at least 50 people would have benefited from that Bridge to Nowhere. At least somebody would have gotten something out of that.
Earmarks are cheap. ... They are very cheap compared to the cost of downgrading our credit rating or shutting down the government.
If you're keeping score at home, the Bridge to Nowhere would have cost taxpayers $398 million. Two years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center reported that the nonsensical debt ceiling debates that nearly drove the country into default "will cost taxpayers $18.9 billion over 10 years." The Office of Management and Budget said that the 2013 government shutdown "cost taxpayers about $2 billion in lost productivity." Congress, arguably, found a way to get to Nowhere without that bridge.
As HuffPost's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim reported in June, "Congress may be warming up" to calling backsies on its decision to eliminate earmarks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid characterized the reform as a "mistake" and said that "top House Republicans have told him that they support earmarks and would like to see the practice return."
Knuti thinks this needs to happen with all deliberate haste.
"There should obviously be some safeguards," she says. "Members should have to put their names next to their earmarks and say why they are important. But we should bring them back. And Democrats, who skewered Republicans for years on this and put the pressure on [House Speaker John] Boehner to end them -- we have to give him the [political] cover to bring them back."
Doing so, Knuti says, may mean the difference between Congress re-embarking on civilized dealmaking and remaining permanently entrenched in the miasma of tribal political nonsense: "In compromise, both sides need to get up from the table having won something. When you don't have earmarks, half the people go home losers. So half the people have no incentive to play ball. One side of the table loses, so why would that side come back to the table again?"
"Everybody's got to be a winner," she says. "Everybody has to go home a winner."
READ THE WHOLE THING:
The Value of Political Corruption [New York Times]
The interview with Erikka Knuti has been edited for length and clarity.
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