If U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver insists on pursuing uphill crusades to make Congress work better, we’d prefer he stick with his civility campaign.
The new cause taken up by the Democrat from Kansas City — restoring earmarks — isn’t just improbable. It’s completely misguided.
Cleaver apparently has decided to make himself the voice for a minority contingent that wants to return to the good old days of pork-laden legislation. If a member of Congress has a stake in a bill — a few hundred million dollars for a bridge under consideration, for example — that person is more likely to compromise on legislation and get bills passed, he says.
Cleaver’s thinking isn’t totally off the wall. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip, has put forth the same theory. And Congress’ difficulty passing transportation and infrastructure bills is a major problem.
But if the only path to progress is to resume earmark spending, then Congress is in even worse shape than anyone suspected.
The problems with earmarks haven’t changed since Congress passed a temporary ban in 2010. They are less likely to receive adequate scrutiny than projects that come through an executive branch review process. And although they represent only a sliver of federal spending, they encourage duplication and make it more difficult to prioritize needs.
Some transportation earmarks proposed by members of Congress actually ran counter to the wishes of local communities and state officials.
The process was anything but fair. As U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill has pointed out, the ability to win an earmark often rested on factors such as seniority, committee assignments and a member’s political party.
Also, earmarks can leave members of Congress open to allegations that they propose projects to curry favor with contributors.
Perhaps Cleaver’s weakest argument is that earmarks give politicians a chance to demonstrate to constituents that they are working on their behalf. Surely there are better ways. And in this era when the public is scrutinizing government spending more carefully, an earmark proposal might actually work against a member of Congress.
Taking a page from the Republican playbook, Cleaver pointed out that with earmarks rendered taboo, the power to recommend how federal money is spent has shifted to unelected bureaucrats “down in the bowels of government.”
But those staffers are often in a better position to see the big picture and objectively set priorities than members of Congress who have their eyes on the next election.
This is no time to resume the love affair with earmarks. Cleaver needs to find a more urgent cause.