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Lend me your Earmarks

- February 20, 2008

Congressional Quarterly recently published (here, ungated) some interesting statistics about the allocation of earmarks in the fiscal year 2009 spending bills. As the table below shows, there seems to be a marked racial disparity in the average amount of earmarks to members of the U.S. House. On average, districts represented by white legislators received nearly twice the aggregate amount of federal funds than did districts represented by African-American legislators. The mean value of earmarks to white legislators also outpaced the average sums secured by Latino members of the House.


Given the proclivity of members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to secure disproportionate amounts of pork for their districts (see the most recent, ungated treatment by Diana Evans here), an explanation for the racial disparity may rest in the racial balance of the congressional appropriations panels. Of the 37 Democratic House members who serve on the House Appropriations Committee, just five (roughly 14 percent) are African-American. Latino legislators also maintain a slim presence on the HAC, with just two Hispanic members serving on the committee. Most importantly, however, none of the African-American legislators who serve on the HAC chairs a subcommittee of the full panel. Given that most studies of pork politics show that HAC subcommittee chairs– aka “The Cardinals”– bring disproprotionately more earmarks home to their districts than other legislators (see one such study by some of my colleagues here ), the racial disparities in the earmark data should not be surprising. In fact, the greater earmarking average for Latino legislators might in part be accounted for by Jose Serrano’s (D-New York) chairmanship of a HAC subcommittee. (Serrano secured over $13 million in earmarks for the current fiscal year for his district.)

Rather than asking why minority representatives seem to be squeezed out of the pork trough, the more relevant question might be why Blacks and Latinos are under-represented on the HAC and why so few minority legislators have ascended to Cardinal rank. As one of my other colleagues, Chris Deering, has shown (here, gated), the queues for securing chairmanships on the most important House committees have historically been significiantly longer than for other types of committees. Given that several African-American legislators fall second or third from the top of several subcommittee ladders, it may be that racial disparities in earmarking will lessen without action by party leaders. Still, given that the Democratic panel that makes committee assignments prefers to put electorally safe members on the HAC and given that Black members typically represent solidly Blue districts, the diminished representation of minority legislators on the HAC and amid Cardinal ranks seems worthy of review by Democratic leaders in the House.