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Wed Jun 5, 2013, 06:32 PM

Bring back the United States of Pork

If there’s one thing most Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s that the US Congress has become an ineffectual disaster, frozen in partisan conflict and seemingly unable to pass any meaningful legislation. One of the few instances of efficient lawmaking they’ve managed this year happened only after flight delays caused by budget sequestration began to threaten their own vacation plans. Meanwhile, the bipartisan gun control bill is dead, and the fate of immigration reform remains uncertain.

American politics, it seems, has become so polarized that lawmakers simply can’t find common ground on the most important issues of the day. But partisanship has always been with us, and as Congress approaches yet another potential showdown over the federal budget, a chorus of thinkers from the world of political science is making a surprising argument about how to overcome the gridlock. In order to help Congress get moving again, they say, America needs to restore something that has long been considered a symbol of all that is wrong with government: pork-barrel politics.

Pork, in this context, refers to federal money that has been earmarked by lawmakers in order to fund projects in their home districts: things like roads, bridges, and museums, which tend to make voters happy and which lawmakers have been funding with federal money since the country’s birth. The past two and a half years have been unusual in American history in that Congress has been operating almost entirely without such earmarks, thanks to a pork ban that passed in both the Senate and the House in late 2010 and early 2011. Though driven primarily by conservatives concerned with fiscal responsibility, the move was ultimately applauded on the left and the right, and hailed as a victory against wasteful government spending and corruption on Capitol Hill.

But people who have thought hard about earmarks,and researched their history, say that in demonizing pork Congress accidentally gave up something deeply valuable: a tool for reaching compromise. Earmarks, they point out, can be used by party leaders as bait to convince—or simply bribe—lawmakers to support legislation and join coalitions they might otherwise spurn. “If a member of Congress can bring something home that’s really valued in their district, that’s powerful,” said Diana Evans, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford and author of the book “Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress.” “It’s something they can claim credit for.”

More: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/05/11/bring-back-united-states-pork/gsa3RcmD4tXlQPs29ytsXJ/story.html

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