Politics

Return of the Earmark? If Trump Gets His Way, Yes

President tells lawmakers they could help get things done

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., center, says conversations about earmarks are under way among lawmakers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress should consider reviving geographically directed spending known as earmarks, President Donald Trump unexpectedly told a group of Republicans and Democrats at Tuesday’s White House meeting on immigration policy.

“You know 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 but of course they had other problems with earmarks,” Trump said. “But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” he added to a boom of laughter in the room and a few strong yells of “yeah!” and “no!” from individual lawmakers.

“No? Well you should do it, and I’m there with you,” Trump said among the chatter, characterizing the change as one that would alleviate “the animosity and the hatred between Republicans and Democrats.” He noted Congress would have to implement “better controls” and he would expect lawmakers to do it “honestly.”

Trump’s remarks were a push out of left field to revive an unpopular but formerly crucial congressional tool to garner individual member support for spending bills.

In the past, House and Senate leaders could use projects located in members’ states or districts as leverage to help win votes for spending bills they might otherwise oppose. As gridlock has become the norm in spending negotiations, lawmakers have started examining whether to bring earmarks back to help propel legislation forward.

Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, has committed previously to holding hearings on earmarks, which are now expected later this month, a GOP Rules Committee aide said.

But lawmakers remain largely quiet on the subject.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., stopped short of confirming that earmarks are “making a comeback,” stipulating to reporters only that “conversations are making a comeback.”

“We’ve encouraged our members all along to talk about budget process reforms. Many of us have opinions on this issue, but I want our members to have conversations. We have members who are very frustrated with the Corps — the Army Corps of Engineers and how the Army Corps of Engineers has not been up to snuff — to getting its job done,” Ryan said, referring to an agency that has particularly struggled to fund lock and dam projects, for example.

“And that is among the concerns that the Rules Committee is going to be having conversations about,” Ryan said before concluding his press conference Tuesday.

How Congressional Debate Is Supposed to Work (And How It Really Works)

Senate Appropriations Committee member Richard C. Shelby told reporters on Monday that he had to study the issue further before weighing in on the House’s activity.

“I don’t know about that. You know, we have to discuss on that, you know, in conference,” the Alabama Republican said.

“I have to see about it. I think what happened to earmarks among other things was the ‘bridge to nowhere,’ you know, crazy projects, and I don’t think the Senate or the House want to go back to that. Bona fide directing appropriations where it has been authorized, that might be acceptable,” he added.

Shelby was referring to a $223 million bridge project connecting a sparsely-populated island in Alaska with a nearby airport included in the 2005 highway authorization law that became an oft-referenced example of earmarks gone awry. The money was never disbursed for the project, which was later scrapped by state officials.

Predictably, earmark critics came out swinging against Trump’s apparent endorsement of bringing back special projects as a useful tool to strike legislative deals.

“Earmarks are the antithesis of the ‘drain the swamp’ election that sent President Trump to the White House. They are corrupt, inequitable, and wasteful. We urge President Trump to reconsider and withdraw his recommendation upon consideration of the sordid history of earmarks,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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