A little pork can go a long way: the case FOR earmarks in transportation funding

Updated Jul 23, 2014

moneybillThere’s nothing sizzling in the frying pan to remind Congress it’s time for breakfast and to go to work, so what’s wrong with a little pork on the plate if it helps get Washington moving a transportation bill?

And suppose, just suppose, instead of the federal government’s partisan gridlock,  a little ol’ multi-year, trucking-friendly transportation bill might be the bridge, so to speak, to a fully functional Congress. (As always: Be careful what you ask for.)

It’s happened before. In fact, it used to happen regularly. And at this point we begin to discuss why earmarks, those little budget items congressmen award themselves and each other, might not be so bad after all. (The introduction to this discussion is here.)

Of course, members of Congress who favor them tend not say “earmarks,” and certainly not “pork.” The preferred term is “congressionally directed spending.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is an unabashed supporter of bringing earmarks back. His argument: For Congress, direct spending is mandated in the Constitution (Article I). More significantly, to not exercise that authority shifts the balance of power to the White House.

And one might assume that Republicans in Congress would never voluntarily surrender a Constitutional duty to a president, and certainly not to President Obama.

Yet here’s a new video post by House Speaker John Boehner, reinforcing his opposition to earmarks with lots of action-sequence jump cuts and a dramatic score.

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Republicans also tend to oppose the imposition of federal authority on state and local governance, yet the earmark ban, in the case of highways, effectively takes control from duly elected members of Congress and their constituents and gives it to remote bureaucrats in the DOT. Again, the Republican thinking on this is puzzling.

But not all Republicans see eye to eye with Speaker Boehner and company on a number of issues. American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves got plenty of attention – both from his right-leaning membership and the national media – when he called out conservatives in his annual keynote address last fall.

Graves said the dysfunctional relationship between the Tea Party movement and the rest of the GOP pose significant political headwinds for the trucking industry, and the rift will likely have a lasting impact.

“If I was your political broker, my advice would be that you should sell your Republican shares and buy Democrat,” said Graves, who also pointed a finger at the Tea Party members in saying that insisting on having things their way without compromise is “foolish, ill-advised, reckless and detrimental to the future of this country.”

Indeed, the very real problem for trucking is that federal transportation policy has been caught in the ideological crossfire. Transportation has generally been a bipartisan matter – so much so that it’s a cliché: Roads and bridges aren’t Republican or Democrat.

And the negotiating sessions for long-term transportation funding bills, historically, were where bipartisan relationships were nurtured, and these relationships carrier over into other legislative business, as a couple of former cabinet officials explained to me recently.

“Times have changed, and it’s unfortunate,” says Samuel Skinner, who served as Secretary of Transportation and White House Chief of Staff under Pres. George H. W. Bush. “Bush valued the Hill and he valued the balance of power between the legislative and the executive branches. To be successful, you had to do that.”

The remarks came during a gathering of Clinton administration DOT staffers organized by Clinton Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. Slater invited Skinner to join him for an after-dinner discussion on politics then and now and federal transportation policy. And, since I’d been invited to drop in, I’d asked about partisanship and earmarks, and what it’s going to take to get a new transportation reauthorization through Congress.

“You can’t really succeed in Washington unless you reach across the aisle. So many things get done when you really sit down and talk to someone, Republican or Democrat,” Skinner says. “We’ve really gotten a lot farther apart, and I don’t know what we can do about it at this point. It’s very difficult. I think presidents find it harder to reach across the aisle than they used to.”

He emphasized that transportation is not really partisan.

“You can argue a little about what place should’ve gotten more money, but other than that it’s basically about infrastructure investments and making the highways and the railroads and the air safe,” Skinner says. “Helping to create jobs and economic activity, that’s what transportation’s all about.”

Slater explained that he doesn’t have a problem with a “limited amount” of earmarks.

“I do think that it gives members [of Congress] a tangible opportunity to take something home,” Slater says. “The problem is that for a time, they we taking too much out of the pot and there was a backlash. But [earmarks] definitely help, and it helps in more areas than you would imagine.”

It’s an important and “natural way” for an administration, through the transportation secretary, to “make friends” and “establish relationships,” he explains.

“It’s unfortunate we don’t have the opportunity for a little more of that now,” Slater says. “I do think they’re going to figure out some way of coming back and doing some of this.”

And that was the way Washington had worked for years, especially on bigger projects, Skinner added.

“Everything becomes local,” Skinner says, invoking both legendary Speaker Tip O’Neill and the difficulties surrounding the Big Dig project in Boston, among the biggest earmarks ever. “The problem is that some of the people that are earmarking, by seniority, are funding programs that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s a slippery slope, and it got out of hand. So maybe we had to reset. Eventually it will come back in, but it can’t be at that alarming level of indiscretion.”

During the Clinton administration, members of Congress with power were able to promote local projects that fit within a broader framework of national importance, Slater explained – but that influence “was not being abused.”

“It was very important when it was time to get votes, and you needed people to sign on,” Slater says. “You had a lot of members who could say, ‘I’m bringing something to my district, to my state.’ I see legitimate application of that.

“A member having some prerogative to be able to do local things is very important. A secretary wouldn’t understand that need totally, but through communication with a member, you come to understand it and appreciate it.”

Still, no one (except maybe that district’s congressman at the time or the local elder statesman who gets his name it) talks much about the good projects that come from congressionally directed spending – about projects that succeed.

Even in their heyday, earmarks were just a fraction of the federal budget – but made for lively political fodder. Lessons learned.

Congress needs to bring back earmarks, and we need to hold Congress and the White House accountable. It’s that simple.