Before the “Bridge to Nowhere” became a legislative cliché, there was the highway to Dennis Hastert’s farm.
Hastert was speaker of the House in 2005 when he secured a $207 million earmark, tucked into a $244 billion transportation funding package, to build the so-called “Prairie Parkway”—a proposed 33-mile highway through the exurbs west of Chicago that was ostensibly meant to connect two interstates. Hastert promised that it would ease traffic flows, and President George W. Bush described it as “crucial” for the fast-growing region’s economic fortunes when he signed the massive transportation bill into law during a visit to the area.
But there was another crucial quality to the Prairie Parkway. Plans called for it to pass within a few miles of nearly 300 acres of land that Hastert, his wife, and some business partners had purchased two years earlier. The tract had no easy access to roads when Hastert bought it, but as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, he was well-positioned to change that. A few months after the earmark was approved, Hastert and his partners sold their suddenly more-valuable land to a developer and pocketed millions of dollars in profit.
It’s a quaint scandal by contemporary standards, but the Hastert highway project is a useful example of the types of things that could, and did, happen when Congress used pork projects as political currency. It was wasteful. It was self-serving. It was opaque. Hastert didn’t disclose his financial interests in the project until the Chicago Tribune and the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, called him on it.
When Congress banned earmarks a few years later, it was to prevent exactly this type of abuse.
On the other hand, Congress did pass a major transportation bill in 2005. That’s a quaint notion too.
Earmarks are set for a possible renaissance in 2021, as Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives suggest that a return to pork-barrel politics could be a way to break gridlock in Washington and allow Congress to do big things again. Maybe it could even pass a real budget for the first time in years.
Some now see the demise of earmarks, a major reform championed by the early Tea Party Republicans of a decade ago, as a misstep that has weakened congressional leaders’ ability to coerce support from the rank and file and contributed to Congress’ impotence and dysfunction.
But while abolishing earmarks hasn’t stopped wasteful government spending or shrunk the federal budget, bringing them back won’t accomplish those things, either. Earmarks are unlikely to do much to soften the hardening partisan lines or restore Washington to the supposed glory days when legislators could agree to act in the country’s best interests, as long as there was a little something in it for them.
If the price for getting more legislation out of Congress is increased waste and the potential for more corruption, we should prefer to get less legislation.
Read more at Reason.