Wouldn’t it be great if Congress reinstated earmarks and started legislating from behind closed doors? That was the argument pushed by political reporter Zeke Miller in a Tuesday article on TIME.com’s Swampland page entitled “The Bipartisan Call to Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room.” Miller presented a thoroughly one-sided view of the subject, refusing to acknowledge the considerable downside of a lack of legislative transparency.
According to Miller, this idea to resurrect the proverbial smoke-filled room is championed by Colorado’s liberal Democratic governor, "John Hickenlooper, a potential 2016 democratic [sic] candidate for president" who "has a creative — and controversial — idea for ending Washington, D.C.’s partisan gridlock: start legislating from behind closed doors and bring back the earmark.”
Miller described the idea as “controversial,” implying that there are at least two sides to the issue. However, the article was chock-full of quotes from Hickenlooper and those who agree with him. In addition to two Hickenlooper quotes, Miller included the opinions of Reps. Thomas Reed (R-N.Y.), Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, all of whom support the reinstatement of earmarks -- also known as pork-barrel spending. Miller also mentioned that one Republican governor anonymously endorsed Hickenlooper’s idea for less transparency in government.
The only hint of opposition came midway through the story, when Miller explained the original reason for the earmark ban: “Speaker of the House John Boehner implemented a ban on earmarks — federal funding for pet projects of lawmakers — when Republicans took the House of Representatives in 2011 as part of a push toward transparency and fiscal responsibility.”
But Miller did not mention anyone who supported Boehner’s earmark ban. Surely there are many supporters out there who would have been willing to talk to him. A quote from one or two such voices would have brought some much-needed balance to this story.
Miller ended the article by lamenting that there is little appetite in Congress right now to reinstate earmarks because the GOP is “still beholding to anti-spending tea party lawmakers.” He then cast Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck in the role of the stern parent who takes away the candy – or in this case, the pork – by including this Buck quote: “This is pretty simple: earmarks aren’t coming back any time soon.”
The major argument throughout the article was that earmarks would “grease the wheels” of the legislative process by getting individual members more heavily invested in the passage of bills. This would facilitate the passage of many more bills. Miller cited as evidence the fact that this current Congress has passed “just” 22 bills in its first six months. Of course, he was reflecting the liberal idea that the legislative body of a free society has to continuously churn out new laws in order to be successful. Some of us would contend that lawmaking for the pure sake of lawmaking will unnecessarily burden Americans and encroach on their liberty.
There is a negative side to earmarks that Miller left unexplored in this story. Earmarks and backroom deals have the potential to load up bills with all kinds of frivolous spending that the American people won’t discover until it’s too late. Closed-door legislating encourages the kind of cronyism that perverts government, and it makes legislators less accountable by sheltering them from the people who elected them.
In order to present a balanced picture of the earmark issue, Miller should have included some of those arguments.