Earmarks face tough comeback after ethics blow-up

Greg Nash

House Republicans’ push to bring back earmarks this year faces a much tougher road after the GOP’s disastrous and unsuccessful effort this week to weaken a congressional ethics watchdog.

The GOP conference, senior lawmakers said, has little appetite for a public fight over an unpopular political issue derided by critics as “pork-barrel spending” and seemingly at odds with President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.”

Trump tweeted his disapproval of the House GOP’s attempt to gut an independent ethics office, ultimately helping to derail that plan. And lawmakers are aware he easily could do the same to scuttle the return of earmarks, which give lawmakers greater discretion over how federal dollars are spent in their states but have become synonymous with scandals like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.”

“It’s very hard to put lipstick on that pig,” said a senior House Republican who is close to leadership.

{mosads}”The paradigm has shifted” with Trump, the lawmaker added. “The lesson we learned was we better check in with the administration and find out where they are on some of these things. Otherwise we’re gonna get the rug pulled out from under us.”

Hill Republicans’ hesitation to reinstate earmarks reflects the new reality in Washington: Trump has proven he’s willing to directly take on lawmakers in his own party if he feels they’re engaging in the very business-as-usual politics that he’s railed against.

And he’ll use Twitter to call them out.

“I thought about Ronald Reagan’s ability to talk to the American people. Donald Trump has his own way of directly talking to the American people. And so far, it’s worked well for him,” new Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.), an earmark critic, said in an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that’s set to air Sunday.

But in a separate interview with the Hill, Walker said GOP lawmakers will have to draw the line at times.

“We can’t respond to every tweet,” said the chairman, a Baptist preacher. “There may be times we have to be big boys … where we say, ‘No, this is what’s best from a legislative-branch side.’”

Earmarks had been a long-standing practice on the Hill. But after Republicans took back control of the House in 2010, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) rallied his conference to outlaw earmarks, citing past abuses and worries that they led to greater spending. Senate Republicans quickly followed suit with a moratorium of their own.

In the ensuing years, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle complained the ban eroded congressional authority and put too much decision-making power in the hands of executive-branch bureaucrats in Washington.

Just a week after Trump’s election, House Republicans saw an opening to reinstate legislative earmarks during a secret-ballot, closed-door meeting — out of view of television cameras and the public. But quickly realizing the poor optics of such a move, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stepped in and called off the votes on two pro-earmarks proposals that lawmakers in the room said were poised to pass.

Ryan worked out a deal with Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), the main authors of those plans: The Speaker promised to hold a special GOP conference meeting on the issue by the end of March. If the earmarks process moved forward, Ryan said, it would do so through the regular, public committee process.

The meeting on earmarks has not yet been scheduled, but Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said: “Member discussions will occur in the coming weeks.”

Trump himself hasn’t weighed in on the earmarks issue, and aides to the president-elect didn’t respond to emails about it.

But in his tweets about the ethics issue, Trump called on Congress to focus on “tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” That message was followed by  the hashtag #DTS, for “drain the swamp.”

Fierce opponents pledged to fight tooth-and-nail to make sure earmarks aren’t resuscitated.

“I’m totally opposed to it,” former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told The Hill. “I know where I stand on this. Of course I’ll speak up.”

Staunch earmark defenders say efforts to restore them aren’t completely dead yet. But they acknowledge that this week’s flap over the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has chilled the conversation around earmarks.

“It probably has less legs now than it had before the OCE blow up. It doesn’t mean that it’s less just,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who in the past has authored legislation to restore earmarks to ensure Congress is fully exercising the power of the purse.

Another earmarks advocate, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), said the only way the practice can return to Capitol Hill is if both Republicans and Democrats get on board the plan, though he stressed there are no guarantees. The influential chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee, Cole said he is aware of some ongoing bipartisan discussions.

“It would have to be something the Democrats are for too,” Cole told The Hill just outside the House chamber.

“I was opposed to removing them,” added Cole, who argued that he knows the infrastructure needs of his congressional district in south-central Oklahoma. “We surrendered a lot of power to the executive branch and made it tougher for members to represent the legitimate needs of their constituents.”

When she came to power as Speaker in 2006, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lashed out at Republicans for abusing earmarks. But during her long career in Congress, Pelosi herself had secured tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for transportation, defense and university projects in her San Francisco district.

Asked after the November election about the GOP’s efforts to revive earmarks, Pelosi appeared amenable to the change.

“I’ve never been an opponent of legislatively directed resources,” Pelosi told reporters. “I don’t see why we give it all to the administration to make those decisions.”

Tags Boehner Donald Trump earmarks Ethics John Boehner Paul Ryan Twitter

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