Politics
The case for — and against — earmarks

By Tara Golshan

Trump told Congress to consider bringing back earmarks. Here’s what that means.

President Donald Trump, to the surprise of many in his own party, told a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers this week, “maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

“Our system lends itself to not getting things done, and I hear so much about earmarks — the old earmark system — how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said at the bipartisan meeting on immigration on Tuesday.

The room erupted in laughter. Trump had stumbled into a contentious partisan debate in Congress, and landed on the wrong side.

Congressional pork, also known as earmarks, is money lawmakers pile on to already-moving legislation for special projects in their districts, usually in exchange for a vote. They became severely unpopular in the early 2000s, and have been banned since 2011, at the behest of Republicans.

For decades earmarks were used as deal sweeteners: Lawmakers would take difficult votes with their party but be able to go home to constituents with funding for a much-needed bridge, dam, post office, or another federal project. The practice resulted in some notable scandals, including former California Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff going to jail for earmark-related bribes, and then there was the $223 million earmark for the “Bridge to Nowhere” to connect an 8,000 person Alaskan town to an airport.

Democrats put in ethics safeguards around earmarks in 2007, requiring members to publicly disclose requests. But in 2011, when Republicans took control of the House, they banned the practice altogether.

“Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people,” former House Speaker John Boehner said at the time.

Now, after a year of experiencing Congress’s gridlock, Trump, who is no stranger to transactional relationships, wants to bring some bacon grease back to Congress. But it’s unlikely earmarks will actually solve Trump’s problems on Capitol Hill.

Earmarks are the kind of thing lawmakers publicly say are bad, and privately really like

The debate around earmarks isn’t clear cut.

When Republicans adopted the anti-pork movement as a procedural hill to die on in 2011, it was largely driven by conservatives, who argued the practice bloated the federal budget and only benefitted “special interests.” Some GOP lawmakers, particularly those tasked with putting together contentious government spending bills, just had to begrudgingly go along with it.

Trump’s openness to earmarks reignited the debate. Conservatives, who remain anti-earmark, are sounding the alarm bells.

“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” Conservative group, Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp.”

But it’s not lost on many Republicans that the last legislative year, jammed with difficult votes, could have been made easier members were then able to go home with millions of dollars for a desperately needed infrastructure project. It comes up “more often that you might realize,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), whose district surrounds Philadelphia, said.

“It’s something that can get people from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ or ‘maybe yes’ to ‘yes,’” he said. “Something to be able to go back to your district and say, ‘Here’s what I got, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what I did; yeah it was a tough vote, I understand the negatives to it, here are the positives, plus I was able to get $10 million for that roundabout or bridge or airport or port or whatever else it may be.’”

Bringing pork back to the legislative process was floated at a GOP conference meeting in January 2017. But House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put the brakes on the discussion, citing Trump’s election.

“We just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election,” Ryan told lawmakers, according to a Republican in the room, proposing holding hearings on the subject instead. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.”

Ryan hasn’t changed his anti-earmark position, according to a top GOP leadership aide. Nor has Trump changed the minds of House conservatives, who despite often doubling as Trump’s most ardent defenders, maintain “it’s a bad idea,” as Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) said.

“My district is not in favor of earmarks as a way to encourage voting with the establish in Washington, DC,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) said. Fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) just shook his head at the notion.

The case for bringing back earmarks

President Trump Signs Anti-Opioid BillRon Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Trump wants to make earmarks great again.

The case to bring back earmarks has been made by numerous political scientists and journalists. (Including on Vox, by now-NBC reporter Jonathan Allen).

The argument usually boils down two simple points:

  • Banning earmarks didn’t actually make them go away.
  • Earmarks could help lawmakers get out of gridlock

John Hudak, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution, who wrote a book on “pork,” argues that “banning” earmarks only shifts more power to the executive branch. In other words, if appropriators in Congress aren’t specifically noting where funds go, the president and his Cabinet appointments get to decide how to allocate the money.

Not to mention that the practice of earmarking hasn’t completely disappeared from Congress — it’s now just done without any accountability. The Republican tax bill saw several provisions written specifically as carveouts (most notably Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s failed effort to get a tax break for the conservative Hillsdale College).

But when Trump was talking about earmarks, it wasn’t in the vein of giving more power to the legislative branch. He wanted Congress to get “rolling again.” And there’s an argument to be made that adding sweeteners to difficult must-pass spending bills can help get Congress out of gridlock.

Without them, the options to “sweeten the deal,” are limited, Josh Huder, a political scientist with Georgetown University, says.

Leaders have a lot of “stick and not a lot of carrots,” Huder said. “What …read more

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