Would 'earmarks' have helped fiscal cliff talks?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (second from left) walks with an aide on his way back to his office after meeting with U.S. President Obama and other Congressional leaders at the White House, on Capitol Hill Dec. 28, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

We’re hearing that Republicans and Democrats are getting closer to a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, but the negotiations have been a tough slog, which got us to wondering: If earmarks hadn’t fallen out of fashion, would they have helped grease the gears of compromise?

Used to be, if you wanted a member of Congress to vote for something, you tacked an earmark onto the bill. Funding for something like a new road in the member’s district. Maybe you threw in a bridge.

No more.

“I just don’t think there’s an earmark big enough to offset the anger that gets produced by going home and saying, well I voted for it, but I got you a bridge up on Highway 22,” says Paul Light, who teaches government at NYU.

Especially if it’s a bridge to nowhere. Earmarks are practically poison now. Both parties agreed to ban them a few years ago. But earmarks are not only uncool. They’re also inadequate, says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

“They’re trivial considerations compared to the political forces that are driving the behavior of members now in this new, partisan era," he says.

Mann says members of Congress are afraid a controversial vote against the party line will result in a challenger in the next primary. He says party activists and big-pocketed super PACs are waiting to pounce on incumbents they perceive as disloyal.

David Greenberg teaches political history at Rutgers University. He says in that kind of partisan environment, earmarks wouldn’t get you much.

“You’re going to need some greater leverage than the kind of small favors that have traditionally been used to pick up, you know, a handful of extra votes you need to get over the finish line," Greenberg says.

And that helps explain why the fiscal cliff negotiations have been such a cliffhanger.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...