In recent days/weeks, a number of U.S. Congresspersons have suggested reviving earmarks as a means of improving compromise and reducing gridlock:

NPR: "House GOP To Debate Bringing Earmarks Back"

[Rep. Tom] Rooney believes, as many earmark advocates do, that the ban was well-intended but has only served to contribute to more gridlock. "This place isn't working; your government is not working," he said, pointing to the seemingly endless fights over government shutdowns and low legislative input that has defined the years since the earmark ban took effect. He would like to see earmarks return, but only for public projects, like schools and infrastructure, and not for anything that would benefit private entities, like businesses or campaign donors.

Most critics point to the fact that earmarks were vital to so-called "pork barrel spending":

One of the main ethical problems with earmarks is they were often airdropped into legislation at the last minute to win votes, with little oversight of how the money was spent. "Once the money was appropriated and the earmark went out, there was no oversight to see did it actually go to that project? Did it actually do that? Congress is very lazy, in our opinion, about doing oversight and that's really their fundamental job," [Steve] Ellis [with Taxpayers for Common Sense] said.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe the critiques and attribute the lack of compromise and increased congressional gridlock to the increasing polarization of the United States. But that being said, I'm curious to know if there's any research (and not just anecdotes of "it was better when") to back up the notion that earmarks improve compromise.

  • 2
    Would a bribe by any other name smell so foul?
    – Gramatik
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 16:21
  • "Improve" as in make it more likely that something will eventually pass, or "improve" meaning making what is passed more effective policy-wise? Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 23:19
  • @Gramatik: I suppose that's one way of putting it -- Billy Shakespeare would probably be quite proud, in fact ;-)
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 23:54
  • @PoloHoleSet: That's a subtle difference I hadn't thought of -- if I had to choose, I'd say the former (at least, that's how my question reads), but the latter seems just as important.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 23:55
  • The latter often gets sacrificed for the former, as more and more noses push into the public trough. But the latter would require both political courage and governing for the interests of the people, so that's probably a completely imaginary "choice B" in the current environment. Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 16:10

1 Answer 1


The criticism isn't that they don't create compromises or win votes, it's that they do it in an undesirable way.

Earmarks are strictly a tool of compromise to get votes. If any particular earmark did not it wouldn't have been made. But it really really looks like bribery.

Every law helps some people or interests and hurts others, and judging whether on the whole it is good or not is what legislators are expected to do. If the balance of some general law seems poor to some particular interest a remedy might be to give those interests a concession on some other point. If the concession is to be on a general rule negotiation on that issue might be as big a hassle as on the first one.

Instead earmarks are a very low effort compromise, but somewhat inefficient with money and principles. Rather than say making a "cat and dog" deal we make a "cat and give states X some money" deal and a "dog and give states Y some money" deal, which means we end up with fewer people thinking the cat or dog rules are correct, and spend more money.

Further is the worry that instead of giving to a state these projects were giving to the person representing the state. This could presumably be solved by voting habits, but for various reasons that hasn't been seen as effective.

Polarization may infact be a symptom of a lack of easy ways to compromise. Compromise on the main issue is hard for majorities to stomach, and earmarks gave a reason for the minority to stay at the trough table. Without anything easy for the majority to give individuals in the minority the minority fights as a unit, which forces the majority to close ranks to get anything done.

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