America is politically polarized. Congress is dysfunctional. Legislation to help individuals, cities, territories and states recover from recent natural disasters are going nowhere. No solutions are in sight for immigration problems or needed health-care reform.
How can this massive gridlock of government malfunction be undone? The first step might be for Congress to authorize the practice of “earmarking,” or allowing your representatives and senators to designate specific projects in their districts or states for government funding.
Bear with me on this. If individual members of Congress could cooperate to help one another steer some federal money to their respective states or districts, maybe they could work together on the bigger issues facing our country.
Sometimes called “pork,” or “pork barreling,” the process of legislators inserting funding for pet public works or other projects into appropriations or authorization bills was a long-standing tradition until a series of scandals and questionable projects caught the public’s attention and resulted in the banning of this practice in 2011. Remember the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” in Alaska, inserted into a 2005 appropriations bill by then-Sen. Ted Stevens?
Both Republicans and Democrats bear the blame for overreacting and letting this important Congressional institution go by the wayside. After all, at the height of Congressional earmarking, not even 1% of the federal budget was spent on pork.
Since the beginning of the Republic, public policy makers have used pork to grease the skids of government. A 1790 compromise that led to the formation of our country was the result of an earmark: James Madison and Thomas Jefferson agreed to the nationalization of the debts of the individual states in return for Alexander Hamilton’s agreement to locate the new nation’s capital on those Virginians’ home turf.
For 40 years—from the early 1950s to the early 1990s—Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, and for most of that time, the U.S. Senate, as well. Republicans survived that long dry spell and the country kept functioning — not always smoothly — but pretty well, by getting “stuff” by negotiation with the majority party.
So, if the Democrats — in power — got stuff, they kept the Republicans from creating too much public outrage by letting them get some too. Better to empower a Member of Congress—even in the minority party — to exercise his or her Constitutional Article I rights (making decisions about spending) than some faceless bureaucrat in the Executive Branch, right?
As a staff member of a Republican senator, and later, a Republican House Member in the 1970s, my job was to get “stuff” in appropriations bills for their—and my—home state of Nebraska.
My bosses both served on what was then called the Public Works Appropriations Subcommittees, which were the major designers of legislation containing water and land projects for the entire country. These were key positions because if a House Member or a senator wanted a dam built, a road created, a town moved, a port dredged, or a river re-routed, they came to this subcommittee.
This pork, if you will, was usually doled out on a bipartisan basis. When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, one of his first acts was to create a “hit list” of public works projects that — in his administration’s opinion — were unnecessary and detrimental to budget-balancing and the public good. The bipartisan uprising in the Congress was a sight to behold. His hit list did much to damage his already shaky relationship with the legislative branch. It went nowhere.
An act of comity by the Democrats to allow a Post Office to be kept open, or a small oil refinery saved in the rural, Republican Third District of Nebraska was sometimes returned by a crucial “Yes” vote on a key piece of legislation later on. Bipartisan relationships were common and important. My Republican boss on the Senate side routinely drank bourbon and branch water in the evenings with the “old bull” southern Democrats who were committee chairs.
He even became — as a Republican with the Democrats in the majority — the chair of a subcommittee that was responsible for legislation creating federal celebrations surrounding the 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.
Every year I worked for him he would ask me to have lunch with him and the general in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss what budget priorities might be in store for that agency — and our state. One year, we moved to higher ground a whole Nebraska town that was being flooded by a Corps dam on the Missouri River.
On the House side, my boss was a grandmotherly-type who was not shy about asking favors from powerful Democrats for her Congressional District. How do you say “no” to your grandmother? We all got along. Our office was right next door to the office of then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, a Democrat.
When the bell for a vote would ring, the two — a rock-ribbed conservative Republican from rural Nebraska, and a dedicated liberal from urban Baltimore — would walk arm-in-arm to the House floor. When the bosses went home on Friday afternoons we opened the doors between the offices. I popped Nebraska popcorn, and Rep. Mikulski’s staff ordered in the beer. Probably not too much of that happening these days.
For years, the Republican leadership in Congress seemed content to trade a strong effort to regain the majority in return for getting stuff from the Democrats. Then along came Newt Gingrich. “During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat — replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism — that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction,” writes McKay Coppins in the November 2018 issue of The Atlantic. “Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution — an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.”
One of those “civilizing traits,” of course, was bipartisan cooperation on projects important in one’s state or district, which, in turn, helped that Member of Congress get re-elected. Newt would have none of that. Starting with his ascension to the Speakership of the House in 1994, it was traitorous for a Republican in the majority to help a Democrat in almost any way.
The well had been poisoned. Reaching across the aisle would get your hand slapped. And so it went — even when Gingrich was unseated and resigned and the Democrats regained power a few years later. The impeachment of President Bill Clinton sort of sealed the deal. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to even schedule a hearing on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, typifies the toxic atmosphere in the current Washington swamp.
Could there be a reawakening to the need for “pork?” After having been stalled for years, legislation containing authorization for more than 100 separate public lands and water projects recently passed both the House and Senate and was signed by President Trump. Although he is said to favor restoring the practice of earmarking, he changes his mind a lot, and his budget recommendations to fund those projects were woefully inadequate.
The Democrat in charge of the Appropriations Committee in the House, Nita Lowey of New York, said in a February letter to her colleagues, “I am a strong proponent of Congressionally-directed spending and believe it is imperative that Congress exercise its constitutional responsibility in determining how and where taxpayer dollars that we appropriate are spent.” But, she goes on, “Unfortunately there is currently not the necessary bipartisan, bicameral agreement to allow the Appropriations Committee to earmark.” Thus, the upcoming budget bills probably will not contain any earmarks.
That’s too bad, because it just might be that only the nourishment of pork can make our government strong and working again.