This decision to continue to forswear earmarks looks myopic, according to a recent analysis by Professor Andrew Sidman of John Jay College. His Pork Barrel Politics: How Government Spending Determines Elections in a Polarized Era (Columbia) shows how both political parties can benefit from giving individual legislators more power to direct spending.
Sidman crunched data from various sources (e.g., the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, the American National Election Studies, DW-Nominate, etc.) over a period of rising polarization (1983 to 2012). He also analyzed public works spending and elections results from 1876 through 2012. The aim is to see, as the book’s title indicates, how pork barrel spending affects reelection.
The top-line results are intriguing. “When polarization is high, incumbents benefit from securing pork consistent with the ideological preferences of their party’s base voters and pay electoral costs for securing pork inconsistent with these preferences.” Democrats benefit from dishing out formula grants, project grants, and direct payments. Republicans fend off challengers with loan and insurance programs. Woe to the elected official who sends home the wrong sort of bacon, as he or she may well find themselves with a competent, well-financed challenger. The results, it is worth mentioning, are consistent with previously published survey research.
But when it comes to “defense pork,” Sidman finds a different trend. Democrats and Republicans alike pursue it whether they are polarized or not. In fact, highly polarized legislators distribute military-related benefits for the home districts all the more.
It is no accident that the National Defense Authorization Act, which benefits just about every district in the nation, has sailed through enactment annually for six consecutive decades. Rare is the legislator who stands up and declares, “My district really does not need this military base,” or “My home state refuses to partake of this wasteful weapons-building contract.” On the contrary, they tend to boast about the defense dollars they bring home. That Congress had to establish BRAC commissions and special fast-track voting procedures to enable its members to find ways to trim unneeded military facilities only goes to underscore the electoral potency of congressionally directed defense expenditures.