Making government work, and work for all.

DONALD F. KETTL, APRIL 1, 2021

It’s been a decade since earmarks in congressional appropriations were mostly ended. A little pork-barrel spending could get Congress’ wheels turning again.

President Biden is boldly going where President Trump only tentatively went before: toward a large-scale plan to rebuild the nation’s troubled infrastructure. Trump didn’t get his program passed. If Biden is to have a chance, does he need to bring back good old-fashioned pork-barrel politics? There’s a strong argument that a return to the era of earmarks is the only way to get the job done.

Trump’s plan seemed to be his one sure-to-pass, bipartisan piece of legislation. There wasn’t a single member of Congress who didn’t have bridges and roads that needed repair, and the lure of ribbon-cuttings seemed irresistible. His $1.5 trillion program, however, withered because there was fierce disagreement on how to pay for it.

Now Biden is back with an even larger plan, proposing to spend $2 trillion on everything from roads and bridges to eliminating lead pipes, shifting to cleaner energy and promoting economic equity. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the nation’s infrastructure problems “a threat to our collective future.” The World Economic Forum and Statista rank the U.S. 13th in the world in quality of infrastructure, far behind the leader, Singapore. The case, the administration argues, seems unarguable.

But it’s far from unarguable for congressional Republicans, who vehemently warn that the Biden infrastructure bill could open the door to the progressives’ Green New Deal. “I don’t think the bill can grow into a multi-trillion-dollar catch-all,” said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal. It needs to be about roads and bridges.” And many of the same arguments about how to pay for the mega-program have resurfaced.

There’s a big paradox at work here. Infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, used to be the one sure-fire way of building congressional coalitions for aid to state and local governments. Everyone likes shiny new projects.

No one was better at it than the legendary porkmeister Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who turned his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee into a road-building engine. He captured some of the money for the “Bud Shuster Highway” connecting State College, the home of Penn State, and Altoona to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and he made sure he got the road number he liked — I-99 — by making it the only highway designation written into law.

Pork-barrel politics has been around since the country’s first days. Thomas Jefferson condemned the practice, calling the early federal funding of post roads a “bottomless abyss of public money.” Andrew Jackson vetoed a bill in 1830 because it sent federal cash for a particular local roads project. But that didn’t stop Franklin D. Roosevelt from strategically focusing New Deal money on places where he wanted to build political support or Lyndon B. Johnson from using Great Society funds to shore up his friends. If there’s big money to be spent on high-profile projects, the lure of pork is irresistible.

But in 2010, House Republicans voted to ban earmarks in congressional appropriations, and that ended most efforts to bring pork to individual districts. They worried that the old practice had gotten out of hand, with 9,500 earmarks costing $15.9 billion back then. That effectively shut down the game, and the public doesn’t much favor restarting it. In a recent Politico poll, just 19 percent favored earmarking funds for particular districts. (The poll, of course, didn’t ask whether they favored new projects in their communities.)

Political scientists have found that in the past, members of Congress in the majority party but in vulnerable districts had benefited most from pork-barrel spending. That makes sense, of course, because party leaders would have the strongest incentives to shore up their vote in swing districts as their fight to retain their majority.

Now there’s a lot more driving Congress’ growing inability to pass anything. Biden’s success in pushing through his $1.9 trillion stimulus package is a notable exception, due especially to the big checks for most Americans that were at its core. But polarization is increasing because the political parties have gotten weaker, Yale Professor Ian Shapiro argues. Forces back home have become much more important than debates in Washington or around the world, he contends.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the door to limited earmarking is cracking open, and with support from leaders of both parties. Consider the connections. The Trump infrastructure proposal collapsed from lack of support on both sides, and Biden’s is facing big challenges before it even gets out of the gate. Things are so bad that the Senate Democrats are considering the so-called “nuclear option” — blowing up the filibuster — and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to bring the Senate to a complete standstill if the Democrats try that. Getting things done is becoming harder because party leaders are less muscular. Meanwhile, they’ve lost their power to push projects into the districts of their vulnerable members.

The counter-argument, of course, is Jefferson’s: the fear that pork is special-interest money that doesn’t benefit the country as a whole. As the quotation famously (and perhaps apocryphally) attributed to former Republican leader Sen. Everett Dirksen goes, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

But congressional gridlock isn’t great for the country or for trust in its democratic system. In the current era, a few billion here and a few billion there would be just a few drops in the trillion-dollar ocean, and it could prove money well spent if it provided the grease to get Congress’ wheels turning again.

So let’s bring back the pork! It might get Congress out of the inevitable morass sure to bedevil Biden’s infrastructure plan, and it would be worth every penny (or billion) if it could provide the lubrication needed to get the congressional engine running again, if only in fits and starts.


This article by Don Kettle (kettl@austin.utexas.edu | @DonKettl) originally appeared in Governing.com: An Essential Ingredient for Getting Infrastructure Done: Pork.