Republicans Get Ready to Welcome Back Earmarks

GOP lawmakers want to wrest back the power of the purse, but the pull of pork is colliding with Donald Trump’s call to “drain the swamp.”

Anti-earmark Senator Jeff Flake brings reporters a platter of pork sandwiches before a press conference in 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

When Republicans swept Democrats out of the House majority in 2010, one of their first acts in power was to ban earmarks—the pet projects prized by lawmakers that had become synonymous with pork-barrel spending and corruption.

“Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people. This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington,” John Boehner, then two months away from becoming House speaker, declared triumphantly when his party approved the proposal two weeks after the 2010 midterm elections.

Now, with the GOP poised to rule over both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the first changes House Republicans are considering is to bring them back.

The current speaker, Paul Ryan, has said the party will spend the next few months debating the return of what supporters euphemistically call “congressionally directed spending.” Earmarks could come back in 2017 on a limited basis, potentially with reforms to how they are approved. Or the blanket prohibition could remain in place.

As Boehner himself indicated, the original ban was seen as no more than a symbolic one. Earmarks accounted for a tiny fraction of the federal budget, but denunciations by Senator John McCain of projects like the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska had exposed the unsavory back-room deals that led to the last-minute approval of questionable projects without public debate.

Yet in the last six years, party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers alike have discovered that earmarks were far more significant to the functioning of government than the sum of their cost to taxpayers would indicate. Their elimination furthered the devolution of power from Congress to the executive branch—a source of particular frustration for congressional Republicans who had long railed against the president’s use of executive actions on policies the legislature had declined to approve. And more consequentially, the ban contributed to gridlock in Washington by robbing party leaders of their ability to sweeten legislation for recalcitrant members. Where in the past they could offer earmarks to buy votes, now they were empty-handed. Stymied by constant revolts from Tea Party conservatives, even Boehner acknowledged he had been left with little leverage. With the grease gone, the train got stuck.

A group of Republicans has pushed for the return of earmarks at the beginning of each session of Congress since the ban took effect, but the effort never gained traction in large part because Boehner stood in the way. “As long as I’m speaker, there will be no earmarks,” he said in 2014. When Boehner resigned the next year, his staff created a gauzy, documentary video hailing the ban as central to his legacy and highlighting his record of never seeking an earmark during his quarter-century in the House. “It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said in the video.

Boehner’s exit revived the push to end the ban. House Republicans were set to vote on a proposal to restart the practice last week in an internal party meeting. But Ryan intervened, warning of the potential political fallout of a secret vote to bring back earmarks so soon after Donald Trump won the White House on a “drain the swamp” message. A Republican inside the room said that based on the comments from members, the amendment approving earmarks would likely have passed had the speaker not stepped in. Yet even though Ryan halted the vote, he brings a much more open mind to the issue than did Boehner. In a carefully worded statement to reporters the next day, he acknowledged—without ever uttering the word “earmark”—that the total ban could be lifted sometime in 2017. “Our members are worried that we have seen a dilution of the separation of powers,” Ryan said. “Our members are worried that the executive branch, unelected bureaucrats, have been given far too much power and that we’ve seen violence done to the separation of powers.” He continued:

So restoring the power of the purse truly to the legislative branch, so that elected officials can hold the unelected branch of government more accountable, is the genesis of that concern. We decided yesterday that we’re going to spend a good amount of time deliberating how best to do that. So we’re going to be spending the first quarter of 2017 figuring out just how we can make sure we can restore the power of the purse to the legislative branch to hold the unelected branch accountable. When we say drain the swamp, that means stop giving all this power to unelected people to micromanage our society, our economy, and our lives, and restore the Constitution. That’s what this debate is about.

What Ryan doesn’t mention is that restoring earmarks could make his job easier, and Trump’s, too. The speaker has put an emphasis on returning to “regular order” in the House by passing individual appropriations bills to fund the government rather than packaging them all together in one giant omnibus that conservatives hate. But just like Boehner before him, Ryan has struggled to realize that goal, and one reason is that appropriations bills are exactly the vehicles in which legislative leaders once routinely doled out earmarks as carrots to secure the votes for passage.

Trump, of course, has proposed broad ethics reforms to restrict lobbying and enact term limits. Neither of those ideas has much chance of winning approval from the men and women who would be most negatively affected by them. Members of Congress frequently become lobbyists after they leave office, and previous attempts to impose term limits have gone nowhere on Capitol Hill. Another priority of the president-elect’s, however, is a major infrastructure bill. Like appropriations measures, legislation to authorize the construction of roads and bridges has been ripe for earmarking in the past, and there is often no surer way to get fiscal hawks to support deficit-busting spending than to make sure there are goodies in it for them.

Outside groups have quickly denounced the push to revive earmarks, seeing it as evidence that Republicans are reverting to old ways and getting too comfortable with their power in Congress. According to FreedomWorks, the GOP-led House and Senate in 2005 approved a total of 14,000 earmarks totaling $27 billion. “The American people made it crystal clear last week that it is time to drain the swamp in Washington—that includes keeping in place the ban on congressional earmarks,” said Jim DeMint, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former South Carolina senator. “Legislative earmarking was a lynchpin of Washington’s crony system—a favorite of the politically and financially well-connected, it wasted huge amounts of money.” Citizens Against Government Waste, the nonpartisan group that highlights egregious spending in an annual “pig book,” fired off a letter to lawmakers expressing its “vehement opposition” to the resurrection of earmarks.

Support for earmarks among Republicans tends to cleave more along generational than ideological lines. Veteran lawmakers who served in Congress during their heyday are more likely to back their return than more junior members who campaigned on getting rid of them. One of the Republicans behind the latest push to revive the practice is Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, who won his first election two years before the ban took effect. He has argued that earmarks are essential for certain areas often neglected by congressional check-writers, like specific projects for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Voters want to see tangible results out of Washington, and securing federal dollars for local projects, Rooney said, is a basic responsibility of a representative in Congress. “If you need this inlet dredged, or this water project or whatever done, then your member of Congress will go and get your tax dollars back for you in your district,” Rooney said. “That’s governing. That’s solving problems.”

Rooney also said it was misleading for earmark critics to suggest that eliminating them was a way to reduce spending, however modestly. “It’s being disingenuous just to get votes for an election, because that money is still being spent,” he said. “It’s just up to the Army Corps how they spend it. And that’s not what people send us to Washington to do.”

For more conservative Republicans like Representatives Louie Gohmert of Texas and Steve King of Iowa, the earmark question is a simple one: Who gets to decide how federal money is spent? “Congress under Article 1 is supposed to have line items in our appropriations where we say, ‘This is what the money goes for,’” said Gohmert, who complained that when he supported the ban in 2010, it was only supposed to be “a temporary moratorium.” “I can’t think of a worse time in the history of the United States for the U.S. Congress to give up its authority to do specific legislating than under Barack Obama.” Added King: “There always will be earmarks. It’s just that the administration runs the earmarks today.”

Whether Gohmert and King will be as concerned about giving up spending authority to a Republican ally like Trump is another question. But they both pointed out that one of the big critiques about earmarks in the past was the process by which they were enacted. The Appropriations committees in the House and Senate would often insert them into bills only in the final conference report that emerged from bicameral negotiations, and not when the bills were initially debated in each chamber. Because the conference reports are not amended before a vote, the public would only find out about the most questionable or downright indefensible expenditures—money for tattoo-removal programs or a teapot museum, for example—after they were signed into law, thereby making it easier to get those projects included in the first place.

An obvious compromise for Republicans would be to limit earmarks to certain agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers, and to ensure that they are subject to a certain amount of public debate and not air-dropped into legislation as a fait accompli. Ryan’s move to put off a vote may ensure that any change to the policy is more transparent and potentially bipartisan, since it would require a separate vote of the full House to change the rules that lawmakers approve at the beginning of each Congress in January. Republicans would, undoubtedly, love to have Democrats provide political cover by joining them in lifting the earmark ban.

If it was up to Harry Reid, they would do so gladly. The retiring Senate minority leader has long predicted that earmarks would eventually return, and he turned gleeful at a press conference last week when a reporter asked him about the GOP’s deliberations. “I am one of the kings of earmarks,” Reid proclaimed. It seemed like a moment of liberating candor from a politician on his way off the public stage—except Reid has been saying it for years. “It’s the way we get things done around here. It’s the way it’s been done for centuries,” he insisted. “I’ve never apologized to anybody. I go home and I boast about earmarks, and that’s what everyone should do.”