Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks
Momentum is building in Congress to revive the use of earmarks after President Trump endorsed the idea on Tuesday.
But don’t call them earmarks: lawmakers say they’re in favor of “congressionally directed spending.”
In a sign of the changing attitudes on Capitol Hill, conservatives are divided on whether to reverse the earmark ban in place since Republicans took over the House majority after the 2010 midterm elections.
Conservative leaders like House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) reject the idea, warning that allowing lawmakers to carve out spending for projects specifically designed to benefit their districts would undercut Trump’s “drain the swamp” message.
“I think that when you’re talking about draining the swamp, it’s very difficult in the same mouthful to suggest that we’re going to reinstitute earmarks,” Meadows said.
But even some Freedom Caucus members sound open to a return to earmarks ahead of House Rules Committee hearings next week on whether to revive the practice.
“I don’t know that I’m opposed to it,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. “We’re spending more money than ever and it’s still going out, but it doesn’t seem to come to my district.”
If earmarks were restored, “I can be more of a spokesman for the people in Tennessee who need it,” DesJarlais continued. “There is an overpass in Rutherford County that we need to get funding for. We’ve got things up in Nashville, the Percy Priest Reservoir … so yeah, I would like to have a better voice.
“I don’t know if earmarks is the answer. I’ve never had them, so I don’t know if it’s good or not.”
Other conservatives also expressed openness to allowing earmarks or something similar, saying that ensuring money for specific projects would give the legislative branch more power.
“I think one way to drain the swamp is to return power to the elected representatives of the people and to not have decisions made by bureaucrats in windowless cubicles with, you know, green shades on their reading glasses,” said freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
Trump said at a White House meeting with roughly two dozen lawmakers on Tuesday that Congress should consider allowing earmarks again.
He suggested that doing so would allow Congress to function better, lamenting that the “levels of hatred” among Republicans and Democrats are “out of control.”
“Maybe we should think about it,” Trump said. “Maybe all of you should think about going back to a form of earmarks. You should do it.”
“We have to put better controls because it got a little out of hand, but that brings people together,” Trump added.
House Republicans came close to reinstating earmarks days after Trump won the presidency in 2016. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) persuaded his conference to postpone a vote on returning earmarks, reminding them that Trump had just won the election on a promise to “drain the swamp.”
But a little over a year later, Republicans are trying again.
The first Rules Committee hearing on Jan. 17 will feature testimony from members of both parties to discuss earmarks, while subject matter experts will headline the second hearing the following day.
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) stressed that any return to spending that resembles earmarks would include reforms.
“The bottom line is we are trying to create a new way. We are not going back to earmarks. Those were dead eight years ago,” Sessions told The Hill.
“What we’re going to do is allow a meritorious-based system where people can see this as in the best interest, on a meritorious basis, for programs.”
Other lawmakers in support of the effort also avoided referring to the practice as “earmarks.”
“Member-directed resources is an important part in making sure you’re targeting money where it needs to go,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) told The Hill. “People should put their names on this and make it transparent so everyone gets to see what you’re putting your name to.”
Members of the House Appropriations Committee have pushed for allowing earmarks, arguing that the ban has made it harder for Congress to allocate specific spending and makes it harder to legislate overall.
Congressional leaders once had the power to use earmarks as a way to corral the necessary votes to pass legislation. They would dangle the promise of an earmark in an upcoming spending bill in exchange for a lawmaker’s vote on legislation.
Some members have argued in recent years that the lack of earmarks has contributed to the gridlock in Congress.
“I think we’ve just given up so much power to the executive branch, number one. Then number two, you’ve lost a legislative tool that’s useful,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of both the Rules and Appropriations panels.
Another senior member of the Appropriations panel, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), said that many members of the GOP conference have been warming to the idea of earmarks.
“I think the majority of the conference would support it anyway,” even before Trump weighed in, Simpson told The Hill.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), another top appropriator, fist-pumped in excitement when he learned that Trump’s comments on Tuesday were publicly televised.
But the conservative Club for Growth dismissed the idea of reviving earmarks, issuing a statement saying that earmarks “will only benefit the special interests that grow government at the expense of working men and women.”
Similarly-minded Republicans expressed concern that earmarks would ultimately be abused.
“I’m in favor of not bringing them back because of the temptation to abuse that process,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.).
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a fiscal conservative, derided the idea of a return to “pork-barrel spending.”
“It is astonishing to me that this is even being discussed. I saw with my own eyes the corruption and fiscal irresponsibility wrought by earmarks,” said Jones, who has served in the House since 1995. “Members of Congress went to jail because of earmarks. Deficits ballooned because of earmarks.”
House Republicans led by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed for the earmark ban following acknowledgments by both parties that some projects had been abused.
Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2006 for accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for directing money to favored projects.
The infamous “bridge to nowhere” — a proposed $400 million project to construct a bridge between the city of Ketchikan, Alaska, and a nearby island with an airport — further drew nationwide derision around the same time as Cunningham’s legal troubles and paved the way for banning earmarks.
Cole acknowledged reinstating earmarks in an election year would be tough and stressed that any effort should be bipartisan.
But that might be tough, given how Democrats could use an earmark revival against Republicans as they seek to flip control of the House and Senate.
“Huh? The President just embraced earmarks? Talk about the swampiest of swamp creatures. You gotta be kidding me,” tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this year.
Still, even discussing earmarks is a boon for proponents.
“I think anytime you start the process, that’s good. And I applaud the effort. But I recognize how difficult it’s going to be in an election year,” Cole said.
Melanie Zanona contributed.