by Robert Donachie
President Donald Trump suggested last week that lawmakers bring back “earmarks,” a practice that for centuries helped transform Washington into a “swamp” riddled special interests, out-of-control spending and unaccountability.
“Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” Trump said Tuesday to a group of Republican and Democratic congressman gathered at the White House. “This system really lends itself to not getting along. It lends itself to hostility and anger–they hate the Republicans and they hate the Democrats.”
“We have to put better controls because it got a little out of hand,” the president said. “Our system right now, the way it is set up, will never bring people together.”
The statement was met with resounding laughter from members of Congress, with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina screaming out his full approval for the suggestion.
A White House official, speaking to The Daily Caller News Foundation under the condition of anonymity, was unable to clarify the president’s position on the issue.
“As the President has made clear, he is frustrated with gridlock in Congress. Some Members have suggested possible solutions, but we are not weighing in one way or the other at this point,” the official told TheDCNF.
The president and members of the administration are frustrated with the lack of progress in Congress, specifically in the Senate, where a narrowly held Republican majority has proved nearly impossible to whip behind the president’s agenda. The House has successfully passed every major legislative agenda the administration’s has asked of it, but it is the House — not the Senate — that is calling for bringing back earmarks.
GOP House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas said Tuesday that the practice of earmarks was not perfect, but “the case for” earmarks is more “powerful” than the case against them.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan stopped an effort on the part of Republicans in 2016 to bring back earmarks, telling his colleagues that they just won an election to “drain the swamp.” Ryan allowed the House Rules Committee to continue debating the issue. The speaker said Tuesday that he wants his colleagues to continue debating, but voiced some concerns about the possibility that earmarks could lead to dysfunction and waste.
One the largest problems for Republicans is that ushering earmarks back into the legislative process means the party is effectively turning its backs on nearly 20 years of campaign rhetoric, not to mention conservative voters around the nation, a point GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona noted after the White House meeting with Trump last week.
“That was a very disconcerting discussion. The president talking about bringing back earmarks and a number of the member of the audience applauding,” Flake told reporters. “We’ve been there and we’ve done that. The last thing we need is to bring up earmarks again. It was a scourge of Congress. Republicans, if nobody else, ought to be wary. We lost the majority in the House and the Senate in 2006 largely because of the corruption that came with earmarking.”
Bringing earmarks back would do more to undercut Republicans’ assertions that they are the party of fiscal conservatism and care deeply about the fiscal state of the nation. Federal spending ballooned with earmarks, as lobbying houses and all number of special interests showered congressmen with millions in return for favorable consideration.
Republicans, dating back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, have called out the use of earmarks, often referred to as “pork-barrel legislation,” as something that is hindering the nation’s democracy and is an affront to government transparency.
The use of earmarks exploded in the mid-1990s under former President Bill Clinton. The practice was so commonplace that bills during former President George W. Bush’s administration would have 10,000 earmarks, often costing tens of billions. Republicans and Democrats have enjoyed the fruits of the contested issue for decades.
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Former GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma led the charge against earmarks with the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project in 2005, a case that has now become the symbol of wasteful spending. Alaskan congressmen were able to earmark roughly $450 million towards the construction of two bridges in the state. Alaska got the money for the project after all was said and done, but Coburn was able to lift the earmarks.
Coburn’s efforts were in no doubt influential to the conservative agenda, however, former Speaker of the House John Boehner deserves a great deal of the credit for making the stopping the practice of earmarks. Boehner ran for his seat in the 1990s promising to never take an earmark, a promise he held throughout his over two-decade career in Congress.
The former speaker quarterbacked the campaign to ban earmarks in the House in 2010, effectively ending the practice of using earmarks with a conference rule.
House lawmakers adopted the rule and Senate lawmakers, despite concerns from then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that doing so would give the power of the purse to former President Barack Obama’s administration.
The rule, however, isn’t a legislative ban on earmarks. Rather, the timidity on the part of lawmakers to bring them back is that they were so deadly after the “Bridge to Nowhere” project came to light in 2005. In the wake of Coburn’s probe into the Alaskan project, former GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham of California was sentenced to nearly a decade in prison for accepting $2.4 million worth of bribes in earmarks.
Republicans can’t expect voters, after the insurgence of populist candidates Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, to think favorably of earmarks in the near future.
Some argue for the tactic to end legislative gridlock in Congress because Republicans would essentially be able to buy Democratic votes. Others don’t think that claims hold water when tested against history.
“Earmarks exploded in the early 2000s and during that time federal spending skyrocketed with pork-ladened bills,” Wesley Denton, senior director of communications at Conservative Partnership Institute and former House and Senate staffer, told TheDCNF. “We couldn’t stop any spending bills because they were stuffed with earmarks and members would be scared to lose local funding. After earmarks we’re finally banned in 2010, the very next year, even during a Democrat Senate and a Democrat president, we were able to force Obama into historic budget cuts that are still in existence today.”
“They were not perfect,” Denton added. “We haven’t slashed the size government but we did put caps on the growth of government that are very real. Guess what? It just so happens they want to bring back earmarks at the exact same time they are talking about getting rid of those historic cuts.”
Without earmarks, Congress passed some historic budget cuts and pass the Trump administration’s first major legislative victory — tax reform. Now, suddenly, they want to get rid of those cuts and bring earmarks back.
Doing so could prove not only political risky with conservative constituents, but would almost surely raise federal spending and work to increase federal debt, a figure that now tops $20 trillion and counting. Going into an election year, the president and Republican leadership will have to decide whether or not earmarks are with the possible backlash, even if they can give a short-term boon to the administration’s legislative priorities.
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