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Pork-barrel spending is coming back to Congress, and it’s a bad idea

Recent discussions in Washington about ‘pork barrel spending’ spell trouble

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 26, 2021. House Republicans narrowly voted Wednesday, March 17, to allow their members to seek earmarks under certain conditions, making a clean break from a decadelong ban against seeking money for specific projects back home. McCarthy said some Republicans were concerned about letting President Joe Biden’s administration decide where federal dollars would go on transportation and elsewhere.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Do you remember the “bridge to nowhere”? How about the “Cornhusker kickback”?

Many people in Congress apparently hope you don’t.

Both of those were examples of outrageous federal spending or perks directed to specific states or districts, often in exchange for votes on other matters. Utah Sen. Mike Lee ruefully remembered them being called “sweeteners” during an appearance on KSL radio Wednesday, for the way they would sweeten the idea of a lawmaker voting for an item he or she was skeptical about.

Other people used to call them “pork-barrel spending.” Congress euphemistically called them “earmarks.”

Now they are being called “community project funding,” a more friendly term apparently intended to confuse people with short memories.

Whatever you call them, they are on the verge of coming back, and that is a bad idea.

Congress outlawed these in 2011 because the public saw them as vehicles of corruption, and because they were ruining public trust in important institutions. The evidence suggests this hasn’t changed. A recent Politico/Morning consult opinion poll found only 19% support for bringing them back.

And yet, the House Republicans expressed support to do just that recently by a 102-84 vote, joining Democrats who also favor it. The Senate is said to be wrestling with the idea ahead of a $3 trillion economic recovery package the president is supporting. 

This time, supposedly narrow limits would be in place to eliminate any corruption. But if these proposed limits are narrow, the Mississippi River is a stream.

A lawmaker’s immediate family could not have an interest in a project (whether uncles or aunts count as “immediate” is unclear), a lawmaker could have only 10 requests (each one would appear on a public database online), a lawmaker would have to demonstrate public or community support for each project, and projects could not involve for-profit entities. 

A recent training session on the new rules for congressional staffers was infiltrated by the conservative American Accountability Foundation, which subsequently made a video of the meeting available. According to The Hill, this training made it clear that money directed toward a project involving a major campaign donor would be allowed (as long it doesn’t involve immediate family members, of course). Staffers were cautioned to beware of the bad optics such a thing might provide.

But, as any observer of Congress pre-2011 could attest, bad optics could be proudly explained away by reminding constituents of the money a lawmaker had directed toward his or her district. As a voter, the optics tended to be bad only if the project favored a district other than your own, where you couldn’t vote your displeasure.

Supporters of pork barrel spending say outlawing them simply moved them to the executive branch or hid them. The truth is less nefarious. Departments or agencies most often distribute funds for projects based on merit, not politics. 

Among the least understood problems with earmarks is how they infringe on states’ rights. Often, they would override the priorities and projects of state and local governments. During the Clinton administration, a transportation bill was filled with 1,850 individual earmarks that took precedence over projects for which local governments were seeking federal funds. 

If you have forgotten, the “bridge to nowhere” was a $223 million earmark granted at the request of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in 2005 to build a bridge connecting tiny Ketchikan to an airport on a small island. The project eventually was scrapped after public outrage.

The “Cornhusker kickback” was a promise made to Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson in 2009 that his state would be forever exempt from any costs for expanded Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. No other state received such a perk. But then, Nelson was the final vote needed for passage of the act, also known as Obamacare.

The nation can’t afford to reinstate such practices.