Briefing Room | The Hill | October 15, 2014
by Niki Papadogiannakis
The number of bills signed into law has plummeted since Washington politicians banned earmarks.
Since the 2010 moratorium, Congress passed the fewest laws in 20 years — 72 in 2013. The number dropped to the double digits in 2011 and 2013 for the first times since 1995.
These numbers are statistically significant, according to an analysis by California State University Channel Islands political science professor Sean Kelly.
“The results indicate 106 fewer laws with the moratorium in place than when you have earmarks. That’s 106 laws that aren’t being made,” Kelly told The Hill. “We have a lot of confidence that these data seem to suggest that there are fewer laws being passed, and we can confirm that statistically.”
There is disagreement on whether there is a correlation between the earmark ban and Congress’s lack of productivity. Experts also note that the sheer number of bills isn’t a perfect barometer to judge one session from another, because some measures are sweeping (ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank) while others name post offices.
This earmarks-to-laws analysis isn’t an exact apples-to-apples comparison. The earmarks are tracked over fiscal years while the laws are counted in calendar years. However, the analysis shows that the death of earmarks has had a significant effect on lawmaking.
“Will bringing earmarks back solve all the world’s problems? Well, obviously not,” Kelly said. “There are other things going on in Washington, D.C., not the least of which is extreme ideological polarization.”
Earmarks have certainly helped get votes in prior years, sweetening the deal for legislators to bring some bacon back to their states. This is one aspect of earmarks that those who call for their return, including Kelly and Scott Frisch, his colleague at California State University Channel Islands, argue would help ease the current polarization.
“Earmarks played a part in the legislative bargaining,” said Frisch. “And if their absence is not directly related to the drop in laws, there is an indirect relationship due to the breakdown of any bipartisan goodwill that earmarks fostered.”
North Carolina State University political science professor Andrew Taylor said bringing back earmarks would not do much good: “Even if individuals want to engage in the earmark practice, leadership, and colleagues will look disapprovingly at it.”
He added, “It’s not clear to me that, if those rules were relaxed, that people would engage in getting loads of earmarks and joining each other in lots of bipartisan coalitions and getting things passed. Because the earmark ban is reflective of a large public disapproval of the practice, people will be more reluctant to engage in it.”
Some House Democrats and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed for the earmark ban, which was embraced by President Obama. Critics of eradicating earmarks remain, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Democrats benefited from earmarks more than Republicans, said Georgia State University political science professor Jeffrey Lazarus.
“All the best scholarly evidence suggests that Republican members of Congress don’t actually get a lot of help at the ballot box from earmarks. With some exceptions, they really only help Democrats,” Lazarus said.
Earmarks have been ineffective in the appropriations process, not only because members unevenly have access to earmark money, but because of the time wasted on earmarks, according to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) President Thomas Schatz.
“The amount of money spent on earmarks is relatively insignificant,” Schatz told The Hill in a phone interview. “However, the amount of time spent by both personal offices and the appropriations staff on these requests for earmarks, which had been numbered [in the] tens of thousands every year, detracts from the capabilities of the appropriations staff to do oversight.”
CAGW reports 152 earmarks in 2012 and 109 in 2014, suggesting the earmark ban has not stopped lawmakers from funding projects in their district, but rather it’s only changed the process. What constitutes an earmark is often disputed, evident by the inconsistency in the numbers reported by CAGW and Taxpayers for Common Sense, both anti-earmark organizations.