Gazing back on the 112th Congress, one thing is unmistakable: It was the least productive and most dysfunctional Congress in two generations. From the debt ceiling debacle to the fiscal cliff to the inability to pass appropriations bills, the legislative branch was in a state of perpetual gridlock.
Congressional inaction can be blamed, in part, on ideological polarization. However the previous few Congresses were likewise highly polarized and remained fairly productive.
What distinguishes the 112th from earlier Congresses? A moratorium on appropriations earmarks. An election victory fueled partly by anti-earmark rhetoric led the House Republican leadership to propose an outright ban on earmarks, and a reluctant Democratic Senate went along.
Deprived of an important tool for coalition-building, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and the Republican leadership turned to a blunter instrument: stripping partisan prodigals of key committee assignments.
Political scientists have long considered committee assignments a “property right.” Once assigned to a committee, the seat “belonged” to the member until he or she abandoned the slot.
There are few examples of members being deprived of a committee seat. The last high-profile case was in 1995 when Mark W. Neumann, R-Wis., was temporarily stripped of his assignment to Appropriations after failing to follow the lead of Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., and Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. That case resulted in a terrific uproar from the Republican Conference, and the leadership backed down, simply removing Neumann from the Defense Subcommittee. This time around the response of rank-and-file Republicans has been muted, and the leadership seems unlikely to reverse course.
There are limits to Boehner’s committee assignment gambit. He can use it only once on each member he seeks to punish. Once deprived of a key committee assignment, most members do not have a second that can be taken away. Using the removal power too frequently will cause a backlash among an increasing cadre of dispossessed Republicans. The strategy will be effective only if Republican members believe that the leadership is willing to use its removal power and are thereby unwilling to cross the leadership on difficult votes.
Much of the important decision-making on budgetary matters is now determined directly by leadership — rather than through the formerly powerful standing committees — reducing committee assignments as a viable tool to sanction wayward members.
Finally, anti-institutional tea party members might not value committee assignments highly and might be unfazed by such threats.
Compared to committee assignments, earmarks allow leaders a more surgical approach to fashioning coalitions. Earmarks can be used to incrementally entice members to support the leadership on politically risky votes. Voting in favor of the fiscal cliff deal might have been the “right thing to do,” but for many Republicans an “aye” vote promised nothing but grief at home and nothing positive in return. It is no wonder Boehner was forced to pass the bill with Democratic votes.
The simple fact of the matter is this: The easiest vote to cast in Congress is “no.” If members of Congress can vote “no” repeatedly and without consequence, it is no surprise that Congress fails to act on many important issues. Boehner remarked to Texas Republican Ralph M. Hall on the difficulties of leading the House in the absence of earmarks: “It’s not like the old days, Ralph. ... Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”
Eliminating earmarks made it more difficult to manage Congress, and it has not improved the public image of Congress one bit. According to a recent poll, Congress is less popular than cockroaches. The only beneficiary of the earmark moratorium is the executive branch. In policy areas where Congress fails to act, President Barack Obama has executive powers to shape the federal response to everything from immigration to gun control.
Congressional dysfunction goes beyond the earmark moratorium, but absent the lubrication of earmarks, there is nothing to lessen institutional friction. To free Congress to do the people’s work and restore the balance of power between Congress and the executive, it is time to bring earmarks back.
Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q Kelly are professors of political science at California State University-Channel Islands. They are co-authors of “Committee Assignments in the U.S. House of Representatives” and “Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy.“