Despite their bad reputation, earmarks are not inherently corrupt. Since America’s earliest days, they have proved a useful tool for building coalitions. (The first known instance of congressional earmarking dates to the Lighthouse Act of 1789.) Nothing greases the gears of government quite like pork. A lawmaker may not care for a larger bill per se, but the ability to slip in a little something for the voters back home can be a compelling motivator. “Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats,” John Boehner, the former House speaker, once observed.
It is this utility that many earmark opponents object to. They do not want costly legislation to be easier to pass. The budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste warns that “earmarks cause members to vote for excessively expensive spending bills that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for a few earmarks worth a few million or sometimes just thousands of dollars.”