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Congress has forgotten how to spend money. Earmarks can help.

Congress needs to take back control of how Washington spends money.
Image: Dollar bills coming out from the divided sections of the Capitol building, top section is red, middle section is white and the third section is blue.
The case for bringing back earmarks. Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Americans have a terrible habit of finding ways to feel better about the problems we face without actually fixing the issues — often causing entirely new problems.

Congress has been performing a kind of anti-corruption theater for the last decade.

We still remove our shoes as we go through airport security almost two decades after the Shoe Bomber failed to take down an airplane, which remains part of the security theater that has been playacted since 9/11. Despite the science now saying Covid-19 is transmitted more often through contact with someone not wearing a mask than contact with surfaces, businesses are still making a huge deal about how often they're wiping down every surface.

Congress has been performing a kind of anti-corruption theater for the last decade. The stereotype of legislators living fat and large in Washington helped inspire lawmakers to curtail their spending habits. But the result has been a breakdown in the legislative branch, putting partisan politics first and hindering effective laws from being passed.

Part of the fix has to be to bring back the much-derided earmarks process. Since the early days of the republic, members of Congress have added targeted provisions to appropriations bills to bring money back to their districts. That has included setting aside federal funds for basic infrastructure projects like highway repair and ensuring that defense projects are spun up in their states, and it was briefly exemplified by Congress' nearly dropping $400 million on the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska before public outcry got the funds stripped.

Republicans ended earmarks as a practice in 2011 as part of their tea party-fueled takeover of the House. Senate Democrats followed suit about a month later, over Majority Leader Harry Reid's objections. Even President Barack Obama was against them, threatening during his State of the Union that year to veto any bill with earmarks.

In practice, the ban took away a key tool to get lawmakers to vote for bills.

It's easy to see why this was considered good politics at the time. Republicans had spent the previous 30 years railing against big government, and the antiestablishment sentiments of the day made so-called pork barrel spending a prime target. But ending earmarks has had second-order effects beyond the arguments made by anti-corruption and waste reduction crusaders.

In practice, the ban took away a key tool to get lawmakers to vote for bills. No longer would wavering lawmakers be offered something the people of their districts would be able to see — for example, new funding for firefighters or hospitals built in areas where most have closed. Instead, committee chairs and party leaders have to rely on personal relationships and party loyalty — two currencies that speak less loudly than cold, hard cash.

John Boehner, the newly minted speaker of the House in 2011, learned as much during the debt limit fight that his recently arrived Tea Party Caucus members had sparked. Boehner had been against earmarks since he joined Congress as part of the wave of conservatives that seized control in the 1990s. He soon realized, though, that without earmarks, he had few carrots to dangle before his rebellious caucus.

"It's not like the old days," Boehner said that year, according to Robert Draper's book "When the Tea Party Came to Town." "Without earmarks to offer, it's hard to herd the cats." Boehner's successor as speaker, Paul Ryan, had similarly little success in dragging his party into agreement on new measures.

That has also meant that when House members campaign every two years, they've been unable to use the "look at what I did for you" tactic to win voters' support. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it reduces spending that benefited sometimes minuscule populations for outsize price tags. But ironically enough, politicians have accordingly had to rely more on interest groups to make their cases for them, in the form of scorecards on key issues like those issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Rifle Association.

The overall savings that ending earmarks has provided are negligible at best.

It has also meant a decrease in spending on much-needed projects that would have had long-term benefits. Republicans slashed $2.8 billion by zeroing out accounts that had been set aside for earmarks in the 2011 spending fight. That money "would have previously gone to water projects, transit programs and construction programs," The New York Times reported. The states those projects were in would have to make up the difference, and given the prohibitions most states have on deficit spending, without federal dollars, those projects are likely to have languished.

Meanwhile, Congress has ceded even more of its power to the executive branch. Instead of lawmakers who know what their constituents need, the job goes to bureaucrats and appointees in the various departments to determine where to funnel the money Congress has authorized. (Nothing against bureaucrats and appointees broadly.)

Republican Sen. James Inhofe knew as much when he scoffed at banning earmarks in 2010, arguing against giving that control over to Obama. Inhofe also argued that the ban "won't save taxpayers one dime" — and he was right. Congressional spending dipped during the rest of the Obama administration as the GOP's yelling about deficits hobbled Democrats' goals before Republicans reopened the valve during the Trump era. The overall savings that ending earmarks has provided are negligible at best.

And for all the hubbub and hand-wringing over potentially bringing back earmarks, it's not like Congress hasn't still found ways to direct funding — it has just had to be sneakier about it, defeating the transparency the ban was supposed to provide in the first place. The Congressional Research Service noted in a report on federal transportation funding this year that even with the ban, "funding formulas and eligibility rules in authorization bills can be shaped to favor particular states, congressional districts, and projects."

"Without earmarking, Members can continue to call or write DOT in support of projects," the report said. "Members may also seek to influence the priority a project receives under mandated state and local planning procedures, which can increase the likelihood of federal funding without an earmark."

Thankfully, it looks like the House, at least, is already making moves to lift the ban in the next Congress. Steny Hoyer, the 81-year-old House Democratic leader, has been advocating for their return for years. In a Nov. 20 interview with Roll Call magazine, Hoyer said the next chair of the Appropriations Committee would soon reach out to lawmakers to "ask for congressional initiatives for their districts and their states."

Revamped guidelines that Democrats will put into place will look similar to those instated in 2007, including transparency requirements like "making a project's requestor publicly available as well as the justification for spending taxpayer dollars on it, and clearly noting in legislation which provisions constitute member-requested items," Roll Call reported.

That still leaves the Senate as a potential block to Congress' taking the wheel again. GOP senators voted last year to permanently ban them during a closed-door caucus meeting. It means that if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remains in power, he could have earmarks stripped out of any House bill the Senate takes up.

But McConnell also knows his members want results. He was a reluctant convert to the anti-earmarks crusade. "I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," McConnell said on the Senate floor in 2010, even as he bowed to pressure from his right. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."

That hesitance never really went away, based on McConnell's version of a new coronavirus relief bill that circulated last week. HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic noted that McConnell had added plenty of legislative priorities to get specific members of his caucus on board. And what are those but earmarks by another name?

Ending the earmark ban is only the first of many steps needed to end Congress' reliance on anti-corruption theater and actually get back to work. (We'll save the need for members of Congress and their staffs to get paid more for another time.) But as The New York Times Editorial Board said recently: "This ban has made Congress less accountable and more dysfunctional. It is time to abandon the experiment." Congress is still spending money at record levels. Let's let it at least figure out where it's going.