Menus Subscribe Search

We Should Care This Much About Earmarks? Really?

• November 16, 2010 • 10:32 AM

Earmarks are not a big deal, say political scientists. Most are perfectly justifiable, and they definitely aren’t to blame for the “eruption of spending” from Washington.

Republicans returning to Washington, D.C. after winning re-election based in part on promises to get tough on the U.S. government’s massive budget deficit have started attacking the process of setting aside earmarks. This story originally ran on March 17, 2009.

If you’ve been following some of the recent coverage of the $410 billion federal appropriations bill, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is little more to the federal budget than a plague of roughly 9,000 “earmarks,” all wasteful and deceitful. After all, both the mainstream press and congressional Republicans have been relentlessly focused on earmarks — and not generally in the kindest of terms.

But how concerned should the public really be about earmarks? Actually, not very, say political scientists who study earmarks and pork-barrel politics.

For one, earmarks (i.e. specific targeted requests for funding separate from the normal appropriations process) account for roughly 2 percent of all appropriations expenditures. (By contrast, the military budget accounts for more than half of all federal discretionary spending).

And while some projects might sound silly when taken out of context, most actually serve legitimate local needs that otherwise fall through the cracks of normal funding mechanisms (which, by the way, would disburse the same amount of money even without earmarks)

“I think people should take a deep breath and stop worrying, and look at other things we’re spending money on as a society,” said Scott A. Frisch, a professor at Cal State University, Channel Islands, who is working on a book called Why Earmarks are Good for Democracy and is also the author of The Politics of Pork. “I’m much more worried about entitlement reform, contracting reform, election reform, campaign finance. But earmarks are a convenient target to distract people.”

“The thing I’m struck by is that everyone seems to be starting from the premise that all earmarks are bad,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a professor of political science at Georgia State University who has also studied earmarks. “Like most things in the world, a simple black-and-white perception isn’t true. There are certainly abuses … but the reality is that earmarks are really the only mechanism that members can ensure that money goes to their districts in ways that are not part of larger bills.”

One of the challenges of the modern legislative process, Steigerwalt notes, is that Congress no longer allocates funding for local projects by what used to be called private bills. Rather, these days, the only opportunity for individual House and Senate members to address the local concerns often is the earmarking process, in which members request funding for specific projects from the appropriation committee chairs.

After all, the House and the Senate are not about to vote separately on 9,000 stand-alone bills, each covering an intensely local project. Such a process would take forever.  But bundling all the projects together in a single bill is not only much more efficient, said Diana Evans, a professor of political science at Trinity College, it also helps to get an appropriations bill passed. After all, if everybody has a local project in the bill, everybody also has a stake in the bill passing. (Evans makes this point in more detail in her recent book, Greasing the Wheels.)

“It’s an inevitable part of the process,” she said. “It’s too useful. It helps members to get re-elected, and it helps leaders to put together support for their bills.”

And it’s a bipartisan part of the process. Both Republicans and Democrats are active earmarkers. And for good reason, notes Jeffrey Lazarus, a professor of political science at Georgia State: “Members who score more federal spending get higher vote shares, and tend to have an easier time winning re-election.”

Then again, it might make a little sense for Republicans to be the ones complaining now, since, according to Evans, “the general rule that everyone agrees to is that the majority gets 60 percent of earmarks, so when the Republican party was in power, they got 60 percent of the earmarks, and now the Democrats are in power and they get 60 percent of the earmarks.”

But, then again, it was under the period of a Republican majority Congress that the practice of earmarking really boomed. In 1994, the last year Democrats were in power, the watchdog group Citizens against Government Waste found 1,318 earmarks worth $7.8 billion. By 2006, the last year of Republican rule, that had ballooned to 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion.

When Democrats returned to power in 2007, they instituted new rules making earmarks more transparent (“It used to be that, until the past Congress, you really had to go through the reports and dig through them,” said Frisch.) Such rules, however, did little to slow the earmarks.

“Making earmarks public doesn’t shame members,” Evans said. “They want constituents to know about their awards. They talk about them in newsletters and press releases. I’d say most constituents like them pretty well if they’re coming to their district.”

Of course, the process still could be more open. “The way the process is done right now is not terribly transparent,” said Steigerwalt. “And anything that seems untransparent can also be portrayed as sneaky, underhanded, and certainly unfair or only aiding those in power.” (Obama has floated new rules to improve transparency even more.)

Moreover, earmarks have also gotten a bad name from a few high-profile cases with corrupt lobbyists, like those surrounding now-jailed Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-CA, or the lobbying firm PMA Group, which is under FBI investigation for improper campaign contributions.

But just because lobbyists are involved, doesn’t mean that they are not representing legitimate local concerns. Lazarus has found in his own research that earmark requests are generally very responsive to the concerns of particular districts.  “Members of Congress tend to seek out earmarks which comport with the finds of federal spending that their districts request,” he said. “So it’s not like it’s as totally useless as it’s made out to be. There is actually some effort to target spending to what a district wants and what it needs.”

Sure, lobbyists often insert themselves into the process, helping local institutions navigate the confusing folkways of Washington, exacting what might be an unnecessary toll. But that shouldn’t tarnish otherwise defensible projects, say scholars.  “Sometimes, it’s easy to pick out abusive earmarks,” noted Steigerwalt. “But you get into trouble when you start critiquing volcano monitoring, which, to the people of Seattle, is extremely important since they’re waiting for a volcano to explode.”

And what of the supposed “eruption of spending” that these earmarks are producing?

“Earmarks are simply taking money we’ve decided to spend on community development or agriculture, and instead of allowing the bureaucracy or some type of static formula to decide it, it’s allowing the elected representatives of the people to,” said Frisch. In other words, earmarks do not represent new spending, but rather money that would have been allocated otherwise under bureaucratic formulas that can ignore sometimes idiosyncratic local concerns.

Ultimately, none of the political scientists think that earmarks are going away any time soon, even if Obama succeeds in adding further transparency to the process. “As long as voters are rewarding it,” said Lazarus,  “politicians will keep doing it, no matter how nationally unpopular. Unless something fundamental about the political landscape changes, you’re never going to see the avenue for this kind of spending completely shut off.”

So, we are left with yet another paradox of American democracy: opportunistic politicians railing against a process they willingly participate in and benefit from, knowing very well that there is actually very little they could do to change it even if they wanted to, and voters rewarding behavior — at the individual level — that they supposedly dislike at the national level. Pork-barrel politics are as old as the system of geographic representation enshrined in the Constitution, and it doesn’t appear things are going to change anytime soon. But maybe, say scholars, that’s just fine.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

More From Lee Drutman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.