Americans are extremely divided politically, perhaps more so than any time since the Civil War. The result is that those elected to represent us in our state and national governments have difficulty communicating constructively with each other.
The words “bipartisan” and “cooperation” now have negative connotations. Those who have the votes, whether they be Democrats in Washington or Republicans in West Virginia, essentially say it’s “my way or the highway.” So, perhaps it is time to bring back to earmarks for practical politics. This old-fashioned horse trading often resulted in Democrats and Republicans working together so that each obtained services, goods and infrastructure important for their constituents.
Earmarks gained bad reputations because they were linked to abuse, sometimes supporting useless projects such as Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.” A decade ago, Congress agreed to do away with them as Republicans sought more governmental austerity and Democratic President Obama said he would veto bills with earmarks.
Often known as “pork,” earmarks have been sidelined for the past decade.
Now President Biden is ready to push for infrastructure legislation, which most Democrats and Republicans agree is needed, yet partisan politics are so extreme that it would be hard to achieve a goal that both parties basically support unless there is some special motivation, which earmarks often provide.
We West Virginians should not badmouth earmarks. Sen. Robert C. Byrd who served in Congress from 1951 to 2010, was often referred to as the “king of pork.” According to Citizens Against Government Waste, he was the first legislator to bring $1 billion in earmarks to his home state. The Robert C. Byrd Center reports he brought a total of $7,350,312,380 to West Virginia. These funds, largely for education, infrastructure and medical facilities, reached all parts of the state. Byrd’s ability to relocate the FBI’s 2,500-employee fingerprint center from Washington, D.C. to Clarksburg in 1991 had to be one of his finest examples of economic development or bringing home the bacon for West Virginia.
The 1926 Sixth Street bridge connecting Huntington to Ohio was a scary embarrassment for decades. Holes in the concrete let you peer down to the Ohio River. The word on the street was that the bridge was only a tad better than the Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge, which suffered its devastating collapse in 1967. There was no money to replace our Sixth Street Bridge until Sen. Byrd paved the way for the new Robert C. Byrd Bridge in 1994.
Huntington can boast at least a half dozen important economic entities brought to us by and named for Sen. Byrd. They include Marshall University’s Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, Biotechnology Science Center, academic and technical centers in Huntington and South Charleston, the clinical addition to the VA hospital, the Center for Rural Health and one named for the senator’s wife, the Erma Ora Byrd Building, Marshall Health’s outpatient center.
Earmarks don’t guarantee positive political choices. Yet, if earmarks are what are needed to make politics practical and get Democrats and Republicans to cooperate in passing legislation vital for our nation’s economic health, then it’s time to fry up some bacon.