Earmarks are the Real Reason John Boehner Can't Control House Republicans


As the debt ceiling deadline loomed, President Barack Obama went on television and complained that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) "can't control his caucus." The Washington Post has declared that Boehner is watching his control of the House of Representatives "slip away." Nancy Pelosi says that if John Boehner were a female, he'd be known as the "weakest speaker" in history, while the communications director of the DNC called him "the most useless, feckless, weak, and failed Speaker of the House perhaps in American history."

Most of Boehner's critics point to the upstart Tea Party faction of the Republican Party as the source of his woes, and criticize the speaker for not standing up to these zealous idealists. However, most of these critics fail to account for why John Boehner cannot control his caucus and why the moderates of the GOP are so willing to go along with the Tea Party minority in the House.

After waving the anti-Obamacare Tea Party wave to take over the House of Representatives in 2010, House Republicans loudly and proudly enforced a new rule that ended a longstanding practice on Capitol Hill: pork-barrel earmarks. In the words of Speaker Boehner, the Republicans "are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington." The past few years have been the result of ending business as usual in Washington.

Congressional earmarks are federal dollars directed to local projects in specific congressional districts. House appropriators would typically attach these spending provisions to various bills in order to entice members of Congress into voting for legislation. If a particular congressman might have reservations about a particular law, the speaker might be able to attach funding for a new highway or research project onto the bill to sway that representative to an "aye" vote. Former Speakers Tip O'Neill, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, and Nancy Pelosi all used earmarks to help pass things through their caucuses while in power.

Though a staple of nearly every Congress, earmarks became synonymous with pork-barrel spending and out-of-control budgets. The infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska became a symbol of government waste through pork spending. After 9/11, pork spending reached seemingly unparalleled heights and was often criticized by the minority Democrats until they came to power in 2007 and decided to keep it up. However, they did attach names to specific pork requests in order to increase transparency.

A longtime opponent of earmarks, John McCain won the 2008 GOP presidential nomination and made ending earmarks a central point of the Republican platform — which the party carried on into its anti-spending campaign in 2010. Once the Republicans won the majority, another longtime critic of pork spending, John Boehner, became speaker and instituted the new ban with widespread popular support, changing how politics works in Washington.

The ban has left us with three years of gridlock as D.C. fails to figure out a way to convince people to do things without earmarks. Ideology trumps practicality now in Washington. This may be a good thing, but if Americans want it, they have to stop complaining about its consequences. Earmarks had the practical affect of providing politicians with cover for voting for potentially unpopular legislation. Now, if a member of the GOP votes for something that the GOP base might not like, organizations like FreedomWorks will stand ready to wipe them out during the primaries. If the Tea Party was powerful enough to knock out longtime party elders like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), few of the moderate GOPers are going to be willing to disagree. Historically they would have been able to appease voters in their districts by saying, "Yes, I voted for that law, but it also built this new dam for us!"

Furthermore, the ban on congressional earmarks has done nothing to reduce spending. Instead, it has merely passed the power of spending from Congress to the Executive Branch. Now the president and his administration hold the power to decide who gets what money, weakening the legislature and strengthening the White House and unelected bureaucrats. There is even less transparency to the system now.

There are few incentives that John Boehner can provide to the moderate and conservative wings of his party. The prohibition on congressional earmarks has helped make Washington a more ideological place. Without being able to go back to their districts and show what earmarks they have brought with them, representatives are safer standing in front of cameras to pound their fists and spout platitudes than voting for potentially unpopular legislation.

This is what the people wanted. Pork barrel spending was a problem. The American people wanted to stop waste and to elect leaders who fight on principle. Just note that before blaming John Boehner for his lack of control and Congress for its lack of productivity, all of this is partially a result of banning these earmarks. 

Perhaps there is a middle ground between the outright ban we have now, and the pork-fest that preceded it. We live in an age of transparency, with congressmen like Justin Amash (R-Mich.) providing detailed explanations of every vote they take. There has to be some way to create an open, transparent system in which lawmakers could request spending provisions. We should not return to the previous pork-filled days, but we should be wary of the power that the Executive Branch has gained, the greater secrecy now involved in decisionmaking, and the dysfunction this has caused in the House.

What do you think about earmarks? Comment below or let me know on Twitter @RobinsonOB!