How Republicans Plan to Revive a Once-Reviled Practice

GOP lawmakers had begun working to bring back earmarks to tip the balance of power and grease the legislative wheels. Then President Trump gave them an unexpected boost.

Representatives Pete Sessions (left) and Tom Cole lead the House committee eyeing a return of earmarks. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

When President Trump offered his out-of-the-blue endorsement for the return of congressional earmarks on Tuesday, he broke the first rule of the hesitant House Republican bid to revive them: Don’t call them earmarks.

“Our system lends itself to not getting things done, and I hear so much about earmarks—the old earmark system—how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” the president told a group of about two dozen House and Senate lawmakers at the White House, in something of a non sequitur from their effort to reach an immigration accord. “Of course, they had other problems with earmarks. But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks. You should do it, and I’m there with you, because this system really lends itself to not getting along.”

The lawmakers laughed. Some of them perhaps chuckled nervously, knowing that Trump had waded into politically treacherous waters by giving his blessing to the kind of pork-barrel spending that had become synonymous with Washington corruption. Before Trump had campaigned on “draining the swamp,” earmarks—spending provisions directed to specific local projects or organizations that were often slipped into bills at the last minute with little debate—had been a big part of the muck.

Senator John McCain had run an entire presidential campaign in 2008 by pledging to kill federal funding for projects like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a span connecting a small town to an even tinier island for which the state’s representatives had secured earmarks totaling $320 million. Two GOP congressmen, Representatives Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio, and a top lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, had gone to prison for crimes related to earmarks. The lawmakers were accused of abusing their earmarking power to reward contractors and campaign donors in exchange for bribes. When Republicans took the House majority in 2011, one of their first acts was to ban the system once and for all.

But as Trump was likely aware, GOP lawmakers were already at work on a return to earmarks—in practice, if not in name. At the direction of Speaker Paul Ryan, the party has begun a review of what it calls “congressionally-directed spending.” Unlike the aggressive Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes last year, this one will be slow, methodical, and above all, cautious.

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“We are not reviving earmarks,” insisted Caroline Boothe, the spokeswoman for the House Rules Committee, when I called to ask about the panel’s plans. Even before Trump’s off-the-cuff comments, the Rules Committee had announced two days of hearings next week to, in Boothe’s carefully-calibrated words, “look at how we can effectively use the tool of congressionally-directed spending.”

Such is the sensitivity surrounding an issue that Republicans know has the potential to burn them, particularly as they approach a 2018 midterm election in which Democrats are favored to gain a significant number of seats and possibly the House majority. In truth, a broad swath of members in both parties want a return to earmarks for two key reasons. One is the argument Trump alluded to—that the death of earmarks has contributed to the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Offering funding for the pet projects of individual congressmen and women had been a key tool for party leaders trying to secure votes for a whole range of legislation, be it spending bills, the farm bill, or transportation and infrastructure measures. Republicans have struggled to pass those kind of bills for years, making them look ineffectual and unable to govern.

The bigger issue for rank-and-file members is a simpler one, however: Article I of the Constitution gives Congress “the power of the purse,” and by curbing the ability of members to direct spending to specific projects, the legislature has ceded too much authority to the executive branch. Instead of Congress making those decisions, it’s now up to the administration, creating a system that lawmakers say is even less accountable and transparent than the old practice of earmarks. “We are accountable every two years,” Representative Tom Rooney of Florida said. “Bureaucrats aren’t and that’s who’s in charge of this stuff now, and that’s wrong.”

Among Republicans, Rooney has led the charge, arguing that Congress needs earmarks in particular to direct money to water infrastructure projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers. “Getting rid of them completely was a mistake,” he told me. He acknowledged that constituents back home will initially get on him for his support for earmarks, having heard the much louder campaign against them as a tool of corruption and cronyism. But, Rooney said, “if you give me five minutes to make the case, every head in the room is nodding in agreement.”

If Rooney had his way, Republicans would have brought back a limited form of earmarks a year ago. He pushed for an internal conference vote to allow them under House rules. But when it became clear his proposal might have enough support to pass, and fearful of the potential backlash to a closed-door revival of earmarks, Ryan stepped in and persuaded Republicans to slow down. In exchange for scrapping the vote, the speaker promised to allow hearings on the issue so that if Congress did revive earmarks, it would do so in a transparent, deliberative way.

The other key to Ryan’s strategy, however, is bipartisanship. Republicans know that if they bring back earmarks unilaterally, they’re opening themselves up to attack from both the right and left. So they’re trying to entice Democrats to join them. “If they’re not part of it, then to me it’s a futile exercise,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, vice chairman of the Rules Committee, told me. As part of its hearings, the panel will devote a full day to testimony from members in both parties, and on either side of the issue. “This is not a stacked deck. This is a real hearing,” Cole said.

Republicans are off to a promising start with Democrats. “It worked!” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, told reporters after the Trump meeting, in reference to the earmarks system. Durbin’s counterpart in the House leadership, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters the next day that he planned to testify in support of earmarks before the Rules Committee. “We are a co-equal branch of government,” he said. “And to go hat-in-hand to the administration and say, my district needs a bridge, or I have a school in my district that needs assistance, or I have a channel that needs to be dredged, and go to the administration hat-in-hand, that undermines what the Constitution provides and the relationship of equality between the legislative and executive branches of government.”

Republicans have floated a range of ideas to prevent a repeat of the abuses of the past. They likely would begin by continuing reforms Democrats adopted requiring lawmakers to publicly identify the earmarks they request and prohibit earmarks from being airdropped into conference committee reports that can’t be amended by the House or Senate. Another possibility is barring earmarks from going to private entities, or requiring that local governments receiving them put up matching funds. “I would see it as a more limited, more focused, and more restricted process than we had before the initial earmark ban,” Cole said.

Proponents of a return to earmarks got a look at what they’re up against in the ferocious response to Trump’s suggestion, which came from allies and foes alike. “If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” warned Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp.” Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, said it was “nearly unthinkable” that Congress could consider reviving earmarks just a year after Trump’s anti-establishment campaign.

McCain and his fellow Arizona Senator Jeff Flake warned against the move in tweets. Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a frequent Trump confidant, shot down the idea, too. And Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide in the Obama White House, urged Democrats to run against earmarks in 2018.

One Republican who wasn’t commenting was the man who presided over the earmark ban in the first place: former Speaker John Boehner. “As a general rule, Speaker Boehner refrains from commenting on pending business in the House, out of deference to his successor and those currently serving in office,” a spokesman said.

The bigger mystery was how Trump got the idea in the first place. Meadows suggested to Fox News that the topic might have come up last weekend at Camp David, where the president and Republican congressional leaders discussed the party’s agenda for the year. Was it Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who before reluctantly supporting a ban in 2010 was one of Capitol Hill’s most aggressive and unapologetically successful earmarkers? His office wouldn’t say, and a collection of aides and lawmakers I spoke to said they didn’t know, either.

The White House contended Trump’s comments represented something less than the full-throated endorsement of earmarks they appeared to be. “As the president made clear, he is frustrated with gridlock in Congress,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Some members have suggested possible solutions, but we are not weighing in one way or the other at this point.”

Indeed, the two former lawmakers in the Trump White House, Vice President Mike Pence and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, were ardent critics of earmarks when they served in the House. Pence declined to comment, but a White House official familiar with his thinking offered a very careful description of his position. Noting that Trump said only that he advocated returning to “a form” of earmarks, the official told me in an email:

The VP helped lead the charge against corrupt pork barrel spending that had gotten so out of control, it led to lawmakers ending up in jail. Of course he doesn’t think Congress should ever go back to that, but he is a proponent of Congress reclaiming the power of the purse, which it has ceded, in part, due to executive overreach in the Obama administration. He, like the president, favors a working appropriations process, where members advocate for the needs of their individual districts.

Supporters of an earmark revival didn’t much care who put the bug in the president’s ear. Surprised by Trump’s comments, they were overjoyed to have the support of the one Republican who might be able to offer them political cover and sell the return of earmarks—er, congressionally-directed spending—to their skeptical constituents. “Sessions, how did you pull that off?!” Cole said he joked to Representative Pete Sessions, chairman of the Rules Committee, after he heard about Trump’s endorsement.

“Sometimes,” the chairman replied, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”