Anik Joshi: How to make government work again

Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 9:59am

Anik Joshi

Anik Joshi Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

The government doesn’t work anymore. Politicians of all stripes decry the fact that no one wants to get anything done. Representatives and senators don’t compromise because they have no incentive to do so. This was not always the case.

Prior to 2011, there was something known as legislative earmarks. These were extra provisions politicians attached to bills that directed the spending of federal dollars to their state and/or district. The reason for these provisions was that they served as a way to whip votes for a certain legislative vehicle/text — some representative would get some funding for their district and would then vote in favor of the bill. In 2011 the Republicans — who had just won the U.S. House of Representatives — and then-Speaker John Boehner decided to get rid of earmarks. The practice was and is seen as inviting corruption and enabling the special interest takeover of Congress, among other complaints. What has happened since Boehner abolished the process demonstrates that government with earmarks is far preferable to government without.

Gridlock has been a problem in Congress since 2011 in a way that it wasn’t before. This is because there are two main ways to get a vote from a congressperson — a carrot and a stick. The earmark was the most common carrot. It was a way to get congresspeople to vote “yes” by giving them a reason to cooperate even if they and their district might be opposed. The other way to get votes is with sanction or threat of sanction — the stick. The problem with banning earmarks is that the most effective carrot was taken away, and thus, the stick became the primary method of persuasion. The problem with this is that a stick is a pretty poor way to uphold cooperation in any arena, and the political one is no exception. 

Take government funding bills and other kinds of appropriation bills as examples. Everyone wants their voice heard and is willing to say no to the bill. Legislative riders (extra provisions attached to a bill with little to do with the original bill) solved this problem — people were far less likely to say no if their vote got them something for their district. Even if their district might disagree for ideological reasons, coming home with federal dollars might make a disagreeable vote a little bit more acceptable.

Once legislative earmarks were banned, however, the incentive to cooperate disappeared to an extent: If you’re not getting something you want, why compromise with anyone? Earmarks, or riders directing the spending of federal dollars, solved this prisoner’s dilemma — they made cooperation attractive because people got something tangible for cooperating — whether it be money for infrastructure, agriculture or another need in their district.

Earmarks, however, were not perfect. There were some problems with the system that were slowly but surely addressed. For example, prior to 2007, members did not need to publicly disclose their requests. This was reversed by the Democrats upon taking the House in 2006. The reason for the reversal was that the old way could lead to illegal activities, such as bribery — and it did in the cases of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and Jack Abramoff. The two served time in prison, and rather than do further work on fixing the earmark process, Congressional Republicans abolished the practice in 2011. 

That has led to a decade of gridlock. When President Donald Trump suggested the House consider bringing them back, reactions were mixed. Certain Republicans and conservative groups were opposed to the idea, citing complaints about crony capitalism. However, others were open to the idea as a way to get the government working again. The chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has come out in support of a kind of earmarks along with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Though Democratic views were also mixed, they tended to support the reestablishment of the process. It did not happen at the start of the 116th Congress, but the interest was clearly there from senior officials like House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., for bringing them back at some point in the future. 

Politics is a process and it takes time. However, the removal of appropriations broke the process in a way that has not been done before and consequently grounded the wheels of government to a halt. Getting those wheels turning again will take bipartisan agreement because there are not enough votes on either side to abolish the legislative filibuster. Earmarking is the best way to cultivate that agreement. Democrats (and Republicans) should lose no time in bringing back the practice.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.