Healthy pork: Earmarks may help solve transportation problems

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently estimated that traffic bottlenecks will cause a $1 trillion loss in sales over the next eight years. The report makes the point that America can no longer put off dealing with the growing backlog of transportation projects whose costs have long outstripped the dollars the existing transportation funding mechanism generates.

It should be noted that these are the same people who published the 2013 report card that gave America’s infrastructure a grade of D+. They obviously have never heard of grade inflation.

With the current highway bill set to run out of money by May 31, the current report comes as federal lawmakers are debating a new transportation funding bill. Congress has struggled to come up with a transportation funding bill that funds needs beyond those that can be addressed with revenue from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal fuel tax, which has not been increased since 1993.

While the infrastructure community is holding its collective breath for Congress to agree on a bipartisan solution, perhaps it is time to revisit the use of limited earmarks to lubricate the legislative process.

Earmarks are congressional directives that money be spent on specific projects, which are often derided as “pork barrel” projects. They basically ended in 2011 after the public outcry about a $223 million earmark to fund the construction of a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

Critics argue that earmarks are basically used to buy votes, curry favor with special interests and help politicians get re-elected by showing constituents they are bringing home the bacon even when America is broke. For sure, there are plenty of people who say that earmarks are pork and the money is being wasted.

To further add to the demonization, they claim it’s ad hoc policymaking at best and illegal graft at worst. For them, earmarks are like a four-letter word and are reflective of congressional corruption, even if they help legislators overcome ideological differences and pass major legislation by earmarking money to buy key votes from recalcitrant colleagues.

Like it or not, earmarks and horse trading are part of the human condition and for ages were part of the legislative process at every level of government. Trading for votes in Congress, not to mention lubricating the process with funding for special projects that the legislators in question consider important, has always been an essential element of American democracy. Since when has the average politician made a virtue out of surrendering his or her career for putting the country’s interest first?

Let’s not get hung up on appealing to the better angels of human nature. Legislators put pragmatism over principle. As that prolific writer Anonymous said: They understand that when you have to choose between voting for the people or the special interests, stick with the special interests. They remember; the people forget.

Stained-glass, Pollyanna-ish types may cringe and complain that this is little more than bribery, the distribution of taxpayer dollars based on political considerations rather than merit. If the use of such a pejorative term makes them feel nobler, so be it. You get merit in the afterlife; here in the present you get politics. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neil once quipped, “I’m against any deal I’m not in on.”

Far from being ashamed of earmarks, proponents argue that lawmakers are a better judge of what benefits their districts than unelected bureaucrats. They ask if we really believe that the bureaucrats responsible for fiascos like the Veterans Affairs scandal and the screwed-up Obamacare rollout should control allocating taxpayer dollars.

Would it really be a mortal sin to reintroduce some limited bribery to grease the legislative process and smooth over differences that preclude in this case the transportation funding shortfall? In the current environment of gridlock, it may be exactly what the country needs. 

originally published: March 14, 2015

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