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How earmarks can help fix Congress

The House of Representatives has repealed its decade-old ban on earmarks, which allow individual representatives to direct money towards projects in their districts. The idea has been “pushed by Democrats trying to entice Republicans to support a major infrastructure package and other spending bills,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

The argument against earmarks, of course, is that they enable “wasteful” spending, like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. But this is great news. Earmarks grease the wheels of politics, and they help tie the United States together as a functioning society.

There are two big reasons the objections to earmarks are wrong. Most obviously, this last earmark-free decade saw a stupendous amount of wasteful infrastructure spending — it just came in the form of high prices, incompetent featherbedding contractors, idiotic designs, and so on. The East Side Access and Second Avenue projects in New York City are probably the most expensive pieces of subway ever built in history, and took at least a decade longer than they should have. The California high-speed rail project from Los Angeles to San Francisco saw such severe cost bloat that it all but killed the project. Overall Americans pay something like an order of magnitude more than peer nations for our infrastructure.

The supposed worst-case earmark scenario of a few swing-state representatives or senators getting themselves a few fancy bridges or whatever they don’t strictly “need” would be a trivial issue. The real American problem with infrastructure is we can’t build anything anymore for a reasonable price or in a reasonable time.

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More broadly, the definition of wasteful spending mentioned above carries toxic neoliberal assumptions. John McCain’s famous crusade against earmarks was classic austerity politics — trying to demonstrate his moral virtue through a crusade against government spending, which was assumed to be wasteful by definition. By this view, whether some community needs infrastructure is typically defined with reference to what can be used immediately — crowded trains need more cars, full airports need to be expanded, and so on. It would thus be easy to “prove” that Detroit does not need a big investment in, say, public transit, because its population has been declining for 70 years.

In reality, this is backwards. Detroit’s population has crashed because it has been starved of investment, and because it ended up on the wrong side of neoliberal trade deals that cored out its industrial base. We want infrastructure to be used, of course, be we also want it to tie the United States together as a functioning polity (again, so long as we are paying reasonable prices). We do not want concentrated, festering economic dysfunction, to pick a random example, to fuel the political career of a racist demagogue.

As Steve Randy Waldman has written, this point applies especially to transportation:

If Cincinnati has abundant and cheap air transportation capacity that will remain whether it is fully utilized or not, firms in New York and DC and San Francisco will start thinking about how they can take advantage of the lower costs of those regions… When decisions about transportation capacity are left to private markets, a winner-take-all dynamic takes hold that is understandable and reasonable from a business perspective, but is contrary to the national interest … It’s a cliché that the government builds “bridges to nowhere” that the private sector never would build. That’s true. And it’s a credit to the public sector. Bridges to nowhere are what turn nowheres into somewheres. We need many, many more bridges to nowhere. [Interfluidity]

A similar argument applies to politics. The Republican Party is currently radicalizing against the very idea of democracy, and engaged in a vast conspiracy to rig the 2022 midterms through Jim Crow-style tactics. Crucial to this effort is a constant firehose of incendiary lies that actually Democrats are the ones trying to steal elections, to justify Republicans doing it first. (Thus the “stop the steal” rally before Trump’s putschists stormed the Capitol building on January 6.) That is a big reason why congressional Republicans voted against Biden’s pandemic relief bill in lockstep, despite it being immensely popular — they have to pretend that Democrats are evil incarnate to justify their own awful actions.

But insofar as some Republicans can be tempted into getting juicy projects for their local communities by voting for a Democratic infrastructure package — which is reportedly not out of the question — this will tend to deflate the perception of Democrats as Satan-worshiping pedophiles. It is hard to justify a pose of frothing hatred towards someone one moment when the next you are voting for their bill to get some money for bridge repairs.

Of course, earmarks will not be some magic solvent that stops Republican extremism in its tracks (and their capacity for hypocrisy should never be underestimated). But every little bit helps. On the margin, politics will become more about negotiation, catering to the needs of one’s constituents, and boasting about real accomplishment, and less about imaginary doomsday conspiracy theories.

There may be even better effects in the Democratic Party. For years conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) have performed their moderation by hacking away at popular bills to make them worse. This was part of the austerity politics tradition — but that is seemingly dying, with Manchin halfheartedly nipping away at President Biden’s pandemic relief bill more out of habit than anything else. By contrast, there are statues all across West Virginia of Robert Byrd, Manchin’s predecessor in the Senate, because Byrd’s political career was based on doling out federally-funded projects across the state.

Congress inarguably worked better when those kinds of deals were common. An earmark building high-speed rail service from Charleston, West Virginia to D.C. might not be the most perfect possible way to spend money, but it would absolutely be worth a Senate vote, and it would provide economic help to a state that badly needs it.

So let’s all join round the congressional pork barrel, and demand our congressional representatives bring home the bacon.