Since the end of the shutdown of the federal government and the enactment of a continuing resolution that will keep the government operating for at least a few more months, there has been a good deal of discussion about why congressional leaders were unable to form majorities around compromises that would keep the federal government open for business. Much of that attention has focused on the end of earmarks, as a key reason why congressional leaders cannot enact major legislation and why Congress seems to find it so hard to find compromises around substantive and, often, even procedural issues. This theory holds that leaders, unable to offer the “carrots” or rewards of projects in members’ states or districts, can no longer successfully entice their support or votes on pending major legislation. In other words, in the absence of the earmarking grease that lubricated congressional lawmaking, those processes have ground to a halt.
I am not an expert on congressional politics and procedures, and I recognize that there are many other factors that have influenced what some view as a congressional stalemate on major issues, but, as a former state and federal transportation official, I do have some experience with earmarking. In the mid-1980s President Reagan vetoed a federal-aid surface transportation bill, because, he said, it was loaded with pork. That bill contained about 160 “special projects” or earmarks. In 2005 SAFETEA-LU was enacted, a broad and comprehensive bill that reauthorized the nation’s surface transportation programs. It contained over 6,000 earmarks, an almost forty-fold increase over a twenty-year period. And these figures do not even include the thousands of transportation projects added by members through annual appropriations processes.
In the area of transportation and infrastructure, if earmarks had once been used to “grease the skids,” by 2005 they had become the skids themselves. In other words, “special projects” or members’ earmarks had become one of the purposes of, and not merely one of the means to enact, major federal transportation legislation. Transportation earmarks were no longer being used to entice the support or to recruit the votes of individual members on specific bills or votes. Rather, they seemed to be available to all members without regard to party, ideology, seniority, or position, almost as marks of entitlement for membership in Congress. Little or no effort was made to analyze the benefits or returns of such ‘”special projects” or to relate them to national or regional goals and purposes.
It is true, of course, that the dollar figure of all of the special projects, included in SAFETEA-LU, represented a relatively small percentage of the total authorized program levels of the final legislation. But this fact misses an important point: often the earmarked figure for any single project represented but a small portion of the total estimated cost of the project. Moreover, the use of earmarking effectively by-passed the state and metropolitan planning and capital programming processes that were supposedly strengthened by the landmark transportation authorization bill of 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA).
More often than not, the projects that were added by earmarking to federal surface transportation authorization or appropriation acts had little relationship to the strategic priorities of state and local transportation officials, and none to national goals or purposes. As such, more often than not, transportation earmarks distorted and defeated the purposes of the transportation planning and capital programming processes, contained in the same legislation. As state transportation officials, my colleagues and I sometimes had difficulty locating earmarked projects that had been designated for federal funds (and, since federal funds had to be matched, for state funding, as well). Often construction or development of these projects was not feasible, or planning was not complete, and the federal funds went unused after sitting idle for years.
In 2007 the Bipartisan Policy Center launched its National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) out of a conviction that national transportation policy had lost direction and a clear sense of purpose. NTPP sought to make findings and recommendations, related to the establishment of national transportation policies that were more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results. At least in the area of transportation, the elimination of earmarking has been part of this broader reform effort. It would be regrettable, if these reforms were now to be lost in pursuit of the goal of breaking the stalemate that exists on so many other parts of the national agenda.