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Earmark Debate Comedy (Sort of)

Keystone KopsThe American League of Lobbyists has provided a slapstick moment in the debate over earmarks.

As we noted last week, the Senate Republican Conference—that’s all the folks on the “R” team in the Senate—will vote Tuesday on whether to forgo earmarks in the coming 112th Congress. So the head of the American League of Lobbyists did an interview with The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, in which he blasted the proposal. (Former Republican honcho turned lobbyist Bob Livingston also has written in favor of earmarks in the Wall Street Journal.)

Oops. Oops. And double-oops.

You see, everyone knows that lobbyists are not a popular group. Sure, they’re a necessary evil. They provide a lot of information to members of Congress and staff. They grease the gears of lawmaking. But America doesn’t like them, full stop.

So does it help preserve earmarking for a group representing lobbyists to come out in favor of earmarking? Heck no! A variety of earmark opponents are doing everything they can to spread this news far and wide. It helps their battle to get rid of earmarks if they can show that lobbyists like those pesky little spending instructions.

Going to the press was a fundamental error for the American League of Lobbyists and for Bob Livingston. These are the Keystone Kops of advocacy.

(Y’know, we try to be neutral on the issues around here, but having gone through the chore of collecting earmark data, we’re pretty sick of them, frankly. We couldn’t help but Tweet ALL’s blunder out. Too funny!)

But there’s an explanation of all this that comes up short of incompetence, and it illustrates something important about how Washington, D.C. works.

Think for a minute about what the goals of the American League of Lobbyists are. Protecting lobbyists? Of course. But what comes before protecting lobbyists in that group’s list of priorities? Existing, maybe? Paying the bills? Maintaining a list of dues-paying members? That’s job #1. And how do they do that? By looking like an important player in debates about lobbying. And how do they do that? By getting press. And that’s why they talked to The Hill.

The American League of Lobbyists is the wrong messenger for defending earmarks, so what you end up with is a group doing the wrong thing for the folks it’s trying to protect, in order to serve its own interests. Given the choice between doing right by lobbyists and doing right by the American League of Lobbyists, the American League of Lobbyists chose the American League of Lobbyists.

These screwy incentives show up all the time in Washington, D.C. In fact, there a whole school of economics called “public choice” that explores the incentives and behavior of politicians, bureaucrats, and bureaucratic organizations. Once you recognize the incentive structure of individuals and organizations in politics and public policy, things start to make more sense. (The nonsense starts to make more sense.)

So there you go. From earmark debate comedy right into public choice economics! We really know how to kill a good blog post around here.

Visitor Comments for Earmark Debate Comedy (Sort of) RSS 2.0

Lobbyists Upset About Demint Earmark Ban

[…] Harper at Washington Watch has this take on the earmark lobbyists lobbying against an earmark ban: So does it help preserve […]


It’s simply, and always is, “follow the money”. When there is a shortage of money, the very existence of organizations that line up for the handouts is in jeopardy so all the stops have to be pulled. Publicity is the best way to be the first hand in the pot and the ALL knows this.

Carl Benander

It’s about time that the Republicans did something just because it is the RIGHT thing to do. I hope the trend starts here.

Stephen Trusas

I first became very angry at earmarks when Senator Stevens of Alaska tried to build a bridge to nowhere for a cost of $250 Million. How many Kids could we feed or clothe? A Lot!

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