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It might be time to bring back earmarks, Mason professors say

January 11, 2018

Frank Shafroth

It might be time to bring back earmarks

Did earmarks, as part of doing business in the United States government, add pork barrel projects to the budget process? Sure. Were they abused and traded for bribes and political favors? Of course.

But they also are a way to grease the wheels of government, and can be useful today in a time of severe partisan politics and gridlock, two George Mason University professors said.

Earmarks were banned in 2011 by then-House Speaker John Boehner because the practice had become too corrupt. But there is talk of their resurrection, and the House Rules Committee will hold hearings next week.

“They actually get things done,” Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership in George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said of earmarks. “They are important in that they can help pay for things that don’t fit normal budget requests. There are things that are unique to every congressional district that would never be put in an appropriations bill.”

Earmarks also give congressional leaders more control over individual members, Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen wrote in an essay for Bloomberg View.

“Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district,” he wrote. “That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than ideology.”

But there is also a downside.

Earmarks, Shafroth said, “tend to be available to people on the Appropriations Committee, and mostly to the majority, so they can be discriminatory.”

Then there is the perception, and recollection, of corruption.

Tyler Cowen

Earmarks, Shafroth said, “tend to be available to people on the Appropriations Committee, and mostly to the majority, so they can be discriminatory.”

Then there is the perception, and recollection, of corruption.

Shafroth said the worst earmark impulses can be tamped down by limiting the amount of money the Appropriations Committee has to spend.

Even so, Cowen noted that earmarks, at their worst, accounted for less than one percent of federal spending in 2010.

“And you don’t have to think of earmarks as bribes or corruption,” Cowen wrote. “For better or worse, it’s part of the job of representatives to fight for resource for their districts. Sometimes earmarks may turn out to be valuable infrastructure such as a bridge or a new road.”

Frank Shafroth can be reached at 703-993-8560 or fshafrot@gmu.edu.

Tyler Cowen can be reached at 703-993-2312 or tcowen@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.