Earmarks Revival Might Usher In New Era of Congressional Civility

September 27, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – If Congressional leaders are serious about restoring civility, reasoned debate and a spirit of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, they should seriously consider bringing back earmarks, a George Mason University professor told a House panel on Thursday.

“They are everyone’s favorite punching bag, [but] without something over which to bargain, there can be no compromising,” Jennifer Nicoll Victor, an associate professor of policy and government, told the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

“Earmarks became problematic and they are an imperfect tool, but they also were an object over which members could bargain,” she said.

In a bit of irony, the Select Committee was focusing on civility and bipartisanship on a morning when another House committee was weighing divisive issues that could lead to a presidential impeachment. Then again, perhaps these were just the kind of calm deliberations that were needed in an atmosphere so over-heated.

Victor, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University, told the panel the partisan polarization of today has roots extending back to the 1970s.

Its causes, she said, are related to worsening economic inequality, the realignment of political parties over issues of race, and to some extent, changes in campaign finance law.

All three have created the conditions for gridlock and polarization because the “sorting” they cause among voters and their representatives “leaves little common ground on which to build bipartisan coalitions.”

To cite one example, Victor said since Congress began passing campaign finance regulations in the 1970s, some of the changes they introduced to reduce the corrupting influence of money have actually exacerbated polarization.

“Increasingly, congressional candidates rely on donations from individuals, rather than political action committees or parties, to fund their campaigns,” she said. “[But] individual donors tend to be much more ideological than PACs.

“While major partisan donors like Charles Koch and George Soros get a lot of attention, it turns out that donors who give small amounts are more likely to be ideologically driven than donors who give in large amounts, even though close to half of all campaign financing now comes from the wealthiest segment of the population.”

“Looking at the changes that US states have made, scholars have shown that states that place fewer restrictions on political parties’ fundraising tend to see less polarization in their state legislatures, suggesting that political parties have a moderating effect on candidates as opposed to individual donors and groups,” she said.

To get past this, Victor recommended congressional leaders strive to establish “norms of bipartisanship.”

“Where it’s possible, congress should help to foster bipartisan relationships to encourage communication across parties,” she said. “Communication between Republican and Democratic members and staff can facilitate the discovery of common ground that might be otherwise overlooked.”

She also said leaders should encourage cause participation.

“My own research has shown that bipartisan congressional caucuses have a small but meaningful effect on bipartisan agreement and cooperation,” Victor explained. “Congress might invest resources, but also oversight, in encouraging bipartisan caucuses to help members engage with one another, develop relationships they might not otherwise have, and be exposed to novel ideas.”

She went on to suggest simply changing the seating chart, noting “research from the California state legislature showed that legislators whose assigned floor seats were proximate to one another were more likely to agree on legislation.”

“Consider assigning legislative seats on the floor in a diverse, bipartisan pattern,” she continued. “Or, consider using assigned seats using a random distribution of assignment.

“At the risk of sounding blasphemous, consider bipartisan seating during the President’s annual State of the Union Address,” she added.

Returning to the subject of earmarks, Victor reminded the panel that “there are fewer and fewer policy areas where compromises are possible, but individualistic district appropriations are something that legislators can haggle. Earmarks are a constituent driven way to interject negotiation into legislative collaboration.

WHAT’S A YOUNG MEMBER OF CONGRESS TO DO?

For Ray Lahood, the memories still had a sting to them.

As he addressed the Select Committee on Capitol Hill, the Illinois Republican who spent 14 years in Congress and another four as U.S. Transportation Secretary, recalled when he began to see the politics of Washington as something others that what was “depicted in most textbooks.”

At the time, Lahood was a young Congressional staffer working for Rep. Bob Michel, then the Republican leader of the House.

According to Lahood, Michel’s battles with Democrats and hard-edged members of his own party led by Newt Gingrich, took a toll on everyone.

“Reasoned debate, predictable processes, and restrained partisanship had simply disappeared,” he said.

Despite what he saw, Lahood told the committee, when Michel retired he decided to run for his boss’s old seat, bipartisanship very much on his mind.

“But what can I do about it?” Lahood recalled asking himself. As often happens on the Hill, like minds soon found each other. Rep. David Skaggs, a Democrat from Colorado asked if Lahood would help organize a “civility retreat” for House members.

Little did he know that he be co-organizing such events for the next eight years. “By the end of my career there, I was more closely identified with the civility initiative than with any piece of legislation or formal committee assignment,” the former secretary said.

Lahood reminded the committee that at least by some measure, the retreat — the first being known as Hershey 1 because it took place in Hershey, Pennsylvania — tangibly improved the climate in the House.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, later noted that before the retreat, members routinely called each other names or worse during contentious floor debates. After the retreat, when things got heated, members reminded each other of their pledges in Hershey to maintain high standards for debate and personal interactions.

HEARING COMES AT CRUCIAL TIME

Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, applauded the Select Committee for devoting time to discussing civility “at this crucial time.”

“Most of us understand that Congress is less effective at conducting the people’s business when relations are strained, and our discourse is bitter,” Allred said.

Even more troubling, he said, is that because bitter partisan fighting has limited the ability of Congress to fulfill this central role, “the executive and judicial branches have increasingly stepped into the breach, taking on for themselves roles for which they are ill-suited.”

At the heart of Allred’s presentation was a list of reforms, complete with pros and cons, that he developed with his colleagues at the institute.

They are:

  • Frequent joint leadership agenda setting meetings;
  • Biennial committee retreats;
  • Periodic informal committee gatherings;
  • Biennial joint party caucus “Hershey” style retreats, reviving Lahood’s early efforts;
  • Bipartisan fact-finding trips;
  • Periodic joint party caucus informal topical gatherings;
  • Training on the importance and skills of civility and bipartisan relations in our system;
  • Support for bipartisan caucuses;
  • Increase time on floor so members have more time to interact;
  • Restore House tradition of the annual reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address.

“Civility has emerged as one of the most discussed topics of this committee, and together we are zeroing in on solutions that will make Congress work better for the American people,” said committee chair Rep. Derek KiImer, D-Wash., and vice chair, Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., in a written statement after the hearing.

“The witnesses today presented interesting ideas and practical advice as we look to create more opportunities for relationship building and collaboration across party lines,” they said.

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