Congress, and the President, look to restore earmarks

  • 12 January 2018
  • NormanL
Congress, and the President, look to restore earmarks

Congress loves to play Santa Claus. Dispensing gifts, in the form of legislation, is a time-honored custom of the nation's political class. That was especially so with earmarks, the pet projects congressmen would get funded, often in exchange for their votes on other legislation. It all reeked to high heaven, and Republicans stepped away from earmarks some years ago.

Now, with the President's blessing, earmarks could be making a comeback:

Trump reminisced in seeming familiarity with Congress that in the old days, lawmakers of both parties “went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills” — a vastly different portrait from today’s gridlock. Earmarks, he suggested, could “get this country really rolling again.”

The chances of ending the 2011 ban are dim in a midterm election year with the GOP's congressional majorities at stake. But some lawmakers have hope now that a key GOP committee is planning its first set of hearings on the issue in years. And House GOP leaders recently moved to restart a debate on earmarks that has been put on hold since fall 2016 in the wake of Trump’s “drain the swamp” electoral victory.

Trump’s latest taboo-busting position pits him against years of GOP orthodoxy, vexing powerful conservatives who helped propel him to the presidency. Heritage Action called it “nearly unthinkable.”

“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House," Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement Tuesday.

But the president also gave voice to a nostalgia that’s shared by many long-serving members of Congress, even if they don’t often say it out loud.

“Maybe they’ll breathe life into the whole idea. I’m all for earmarks," said House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), whose panel would be ground zero for a revival of pet projects. Frelinghuysen has long argued that it’s better for lawmakers to submit requests through his committee, rather than air-dropping them into spending bills through eleventh-hour amendments.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who has served since 1997, was happily surprised to hear Trump’s support, especially since it would empower Congress over executive agencies. “Usually the administration doesn’t promote that,” he said.

A longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, Aderholt said he could back a return to earmarks “as long as it’s done on a fair and transparent basis.” He said it’s better for elected representatives to dole out government cash, rather than “a group of bureaucrats a thousand miles away.”

“The misnomer about that is that it is a ‘swamp’ issue,” Aderholt said. “You could make the argument that this is more getting rid of the swamp, holding people accountable.”

We would expect nothing less from a "longtime member of the Appropriations Committee." 

But we expect far more from self-described fiscal conservatives, who once saw earmarks as a gateway drug to unbridled spending, with a touch of honest graft. Not that Congress has shown much interest in fiscal restraint without earmarks. If anything, the worthies view spending -- deficit spending, that is -- as a kind of sport. 

The return of earmarks would make the competition to spend even keener. For a national government that is already burdened with $20 trillion in debt, re-opening the pet projects bazaar isn't just a bad idea, it's downright scandalous.