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.”