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.”