Wherefore Earmarks

(Ed: This is the second post in a 3-part series on earmarks. Here’s Part I.)

Feel free to skip over this post, but if you’re interested in processes and cause-and-effect minutia, it might be worth a look. Do read the stuff on state funding in Part III, though.

Why do earmarks exist? The CliffsNotes version goes something like this:

Legislators are beholden to their constituents for reelection. Funding for small projects, in the grand scheme of things, like a fleet of buses, a park, or even a power plant gives legislators something they can hold up during their ensuing campaigns and say, “look at me!” This, coupled with name recognition, is a big part of the incumbency advantage.

The long version is a tad more complex. Earmark projects become a way for swing vote legislators to get something for themselves in exchange for supporting a bill. Need an extra representative on board? Dangle agriculture funds. Need a senator? Waft a shiny energy contract in front of their noses. Even non-earmark funding, like (supposedly) that billion dollars for FutureGen, doesn’t get distributed without some political jockeying going on. Don’t be naive: Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) or maybe even Obama himself had something to do with that money ending up in Illinois.

Sometimes earmarks are even added for the opposite reason — not because the legislators want the money, but because they want to make the bill so gargantuan as to derail its passage.

And because certain bills are either certain to pass (the war-funding example from Part I), need help to pass (the swing vote scenario), or need help not to pass, the earmark system will persist unless new rules are adopted, because legislators — especially young, relatively unknown ones — would be foolish not to utilize such a tool. Principled stands are all well and good, but one doesn’t balk lightly at a ticket to reelection.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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