Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare

Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare
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As Congress prepares to send a tax cut gift to every American before Christmas, House Republicans appear to be getting ready to stuff a huge lump of coal in their stockings by holding a clandestine, closed-door, unrecorded vote to restore earmarks. There would be no hearings, transparency or accountability.

Perhaps the three co-conspirators to revive earmarks, Reps. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonGOP House super PAC reserves million in fall TV ads GOP lawmaker: 'A lot of the attractive children are not making it to the border' Expanding map creates tough choices for GOP MORE (R-Texas), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersOvernight Cybersecurity: DHS chief delivers warning to cyber attackers | Tech giants pledge not to help government cyberattacks | Justices toss DOJ case against Microsoft Former senior government officials come out in support of Pompeo Overnight Cybersecurity: Highlights from Zuckerberg, round two | Senate panel to consider bill protecting Mueller | Pentagon could roll out cyber posture by August MORE (R-Ala.) and Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyLoss of Ryan hits hard for House Republicans Four lawmakers offer bill to permanently ban earmarks Republicans on defensive over Russia report finding MORE (R-Fla.), think that they can sneak this all through when the spotlight will be on tax reform over the next several weeks, and while everyone heads out to dozens of holiday parties around the nation’s capital. But House Republicans should be on notice that reviving earmarks from the grave would be a nightmare through the 2018 elections. The practice is not only political poison, it is also corruptive, unfair and costly.

At a joint briefing on earmarks held in January by Citizens Against Government Waste and the Republican Study Committee, former Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks MORE (R-Okla.) made it clear that “if Republicans want to give up the majority,” they should restore earmarks. At the same event, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) noted that in 2004, Republicans had the House, Senate and White House, and the proliferation of earmarks was a key factor in the loss of the House majority in 2006. One of the first steps taken by then House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk With Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election MORE (R-Ohio) when Republicans regained the majority in the 2010 elections was to begin the process to establish an earmark moratorium in Congress. Eventually, President Obama and the Democratic Senate led by Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism Dems to party: Go on offense with Trump’s alleged affairs MORE went along with the House.

It would be ironic if the body of Congress that led the way in making a wise policy and political decision to place a moratorium on earmarks reversed course in a manner that will indubitably lead to the second demise of the Republican majority in 12 years, especially after Senate Republicans unanimously agreed to extend the moratorium for the 115th Congress in January.

More than two-thirds of House Republicans did not personally witness how the rampant corruption surrounding the earmark process not only helped cost them the majority in 2006, it also led to the conviction and incarceration of Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), along with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional staff, and other lobbyists. Some members are being lured by promises that the earmark process is “fair” and that projects in their districts will be duly considered and funded. Such comments are belied by the history of earmarks, under which the distribution of funds has always been grossly disproportionate.

In the 111th Congress, when the names of members who requested earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, 61 percent of the earmarks and 51 percent of the money went to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In other words, 81 appropriators (50 in the House and 31 in the Senate), who constituted 15 percent of the entire Congress, purloined more than half of the earmarks. As Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo Overnight Defense: Trump steps up fight with California over guard deployment | Heitkamp is first Dem to back Pompeo for State | Dems question legality of Syria strikes MORE (R-Ariz.) said about members of Congress who wanted to bring back earmarks in 2014, “The problem with all their arguments is the more powerful you are, the more likely you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”

The full cost of earmarks goes far beyond the individual projects, which average a few million dollars outside of defense earmarks. Since 1991, according to Citizens Against Government Waste’s Congressional Pig Book, there have been 110,605 earmarks costing taxpayers $329.8 billion. The claim that they are necessary to help pass bills has been destroyed by the passage in the House of all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2018. Rather than trading a few million dollars in earmarks for votes in favor of hundreds of billions of dollars in spending bills, the earmark moratorium appears to be restraining the size of the appropriations bills.

Nonetheless, the earmark revival attempt appears to be timed more closely with the upcoming consideration of a new infrastructure bill, despite the lurid history of the $24 billion in earmarks in the 2005 highway bill, including the infamous $223 million Gravina Island “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. If members of Congress do not like how federal funds are being spent, they can change the authorizing statutes to spend it any way they wish.

Earmarks are a lazy, unfair and corrupt way to circumvent that process, and they have been roundly excoriated by the conservative movement upon which Republicans depend for their political lives. Any attempt to “amend” the earmark moratorium should be rejected so that everyone can sleep soundly and avoid nightmares before, during and after Christmas.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.