Election years are rarely times for finding accord among politicians of different parties. Emphasis is on primaries and the November election and not doing anything that will help the opposition.
Consider two key issues: the future of young people in America via the DACA program and President Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall on the Mexican border.
Democrats contend Trump and Republicans are heartless and just plain wrong in risking an end DACA – and they want to be sure that message lingers. The minority party in Washington wants the issue for November and will not compromise, even though Trump and Republicans have offered a deal.
But that deal also is about political gamesmanship. Trump wants his border wall funded and has made that a condition of reaching a solution on DACA. Democrats are not going to go along. They want immigration – and the border wall in particular – as election issues.
Even without a pending election, the environment in Washington is not conducive to reaching the compromises necessary in a democracy. And the lingering question is how can that be changed.
As much as many will shake their heads at the prospect, there is a valid argument that the return of congressional earmarks could be a tool in improving the Washington climate.
Reporting for InsideSources.com from Washington, Erin Mundahl notes that few practices are more universally reviled than earmarks. Running for office eight years ago, the GOP made special projects and pork-barrel spending a focus of their ire, and during his 2011 State of the Union address, then-President Barack Obama promised to veto any bill to cross his desk with earmarks attached.
Since 2011, the ban has not been lifted and politics has only gotten more contentious.
A panel discussion of constitutional scholars hosted by the American Enterprise Institute was hesitant to make promises, but wondered if the idea of returning to earmarks that allow individual congressmen to get approval for local projects isn’t still worth trying.
“What do we have to lose? The current congressional process is broken,” said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, in Mundahl’s report.
Proponents of bringing back earmarks say the idea is not to buy votes but to give members cover for making difficult votes in favor of the national, rather than local, interest.
And as much as the idea of earmarks can be painted as buying votes and pork-barrel spending, reality is that elected leaders have to be able to show they are “delivering” for their constituents. And, believe it or not, the cost is not the high in terms of dollars.
According to Mundahl’s reporting, when earmarks were first tallied in 1992, they amounted to $2.7 billion of federal spending. Five years later, the number had reached $14.7 billion and by 2006, 14,000 earmarks had added $29 billion in spending.
But given the size of the federal government, such projects are barely a rounding error, according to Mundahl. This is a small price to pay to move Congress away from brinkmanship.
Grumet points out that most human relationships involve some sort of exchange. Earmark spending was a low-cost way to build camaraderie.
“In an ideal form, an earmark would be a benefit to a member of Congress for dealing with collective action for the good of the nation,” said Jay Cost, a political scientist and writer who has studied the American founding closely.
According to Cost, this sort of earmark plays a useful role in politics by encouraging difficult decisions by giving members something to sweeten the pot. Pretending that politics is not a series of give and takes is naive.
Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have floated the idea of returning to the use of earmarks. While the practice may not be back this year, it should be looked at realistically and not through idealism that cannot be translated into governance.
As Mundahl concluded: “The question is, does either party even want to try?