By Phil Kerpen
John Boehner never requested or accepted an earmark. For decades, he was nearly alone in opting not to partake in the bipartisan annual feeding frenzy of stuffing spending bills with parochial projects to reward constituents and campaign contributors. One of his greatest legacies as speaker is that he ended earmarking entirely, despite the fact that doing so greatly diminished his own power.
Earmarks used to be the coin of the realm on Capitol Hill, with the pork-barrel spending projects serving as the currency used by leadership to induce party discipline on difficult votes and grease the skids for massive appropriations and transportation bills. Although the dollar amounts were always, in the context of overall federal spending, small, earmarks were central to the day-to-day operation of Congress.
They were also corrupt, and Republicans lost their majorities in 2006 in part because of a backlash over the pork-stuffed highway bill of 2005 and the iconic Bridge to Nowhere. But grassroots anger has died down over the years, and calls for bringing back earmarks are now everywhere. But Boehner has held firm, insisting repeatedly that earmarks would never return as long as he was speaker.
That meant winning support on tough votes through persuasion over slices of pizza, and sometimes it meant losing those tough votes. But the alternative would have been restoring the power of the speaker to dole out millions of taxpayer dollars for individual pet projects to buy votes, or withhold these special favors as a form of discipline. Boehner did what was right, not what was easy.
This year is the fifth in a row that Republicans did their appropriations work without earmarks. They completed defense authorization without earmarks and are currently working on a highway bill without earmarks. Lobbyists who used to make big money bilking taxpayers for specific earmarks have seen that work dry up.
A liberal group called the Center for Responsive Politics analyzed the underreported fact that lobbying expenditures have been declining and determined: “The only variable that significantly predicted the level of lobbying dollars was whether or not Congress had the ability to use earmarks.”
So, it turns out that ending earmarks was not just spending reform but lobbying reform, too.
Even as some Republicans join Democrats clamoring for a return to earmarking, Boehner has never wavered. After the last election, a Republican from Alabama, Mike Rogers, offered an amendment to House Republican Conference rules to end the earmark ban. Boehner opposed the amendment, fought against it, and won.
The earmark ban is not perfect, and my friends at Citizens Against Government Waste note that, under the definition they use, which is broader than the official definition, there are still some earmarks. But it is nothing like the old corrupt system, and that group’s infamous “pig books” are much more slender than they used to be.CAGW warns against ending Boehner’s earmark ban: “Should Congress get back on the pork-barrel track, there will be an increased risk of corruption, the potential for an explosion in earmarks, and the enactment of more costly legislation.”
In 2006, Republicans lost their majorities because they had lost their way on spending. Speaker Boehner’s most important legacy is emphatically fixing that problem by ending earmarks and passing the Budget Control Act, which capped discretionary spending. His successor should not return to the old ways.