Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 with promises to clean up Washington's profligate spending and shrink government. One of their first major accomplishments was killing the congressional earmark, a wasteful, corrupt practice scorned by tea party activists and the new generation of GOP lawmakers elected by them.
Eight years later, the Republican Party is led by a president who yearns for a return to earmarks and legislative leaders who, with their time in power possibly growing short, could undo one of the few genuinely positive accomplishments on their record. There's a lesson about the nature of politics in here, if you take a careful look.
President Donald Trump, during a televised "negotiation session" with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Tuesday, floated the idea of resurrecting earmarks as a way to grease the skids in Congress. If that was all, it could be easily dismissed.
Trump is not exactly a disciplined speaker nor soundly versed in policy—during Tuesday's negotiations, he appeared to agree with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on immigration, only to be corrected moments later by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), with whom Trump then expressed agreement. But some Republican lawmakers have been working behind the scenes since last year to revive earmarks. According to Politico, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters this week that he's open to having "conversations" about the idea.
That would be most unfortunate.
Earmarks are among the most grotesque forms of political privilege, special favors lawmakers hand out as rewards to faithful campaign donors or to help sway voters, paid for by the rest of us.
Both parties were guilty of abusing the system, but many of the most memorable abuses were Republican efforts. In the early 2000s, then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bought land near his farm, then inserted a $200 million earmark to fund the construction of a road through the same plot of land—which, of course, had to be purchased from Dennis Hastert. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) was convicted of taking $2 million in bribes and living rent-free on a private yacht in return for funneling earmarks to defense contractors.
The most infamous earmark of all—the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," a $400 million transportation project intended to link an island with 50 residents to the rest of mainland Alaska—was slipped into a 2005 spending bill by the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Even when they're not literal bridges to nowhere, earmarks are pretty good metaphors for what's wrong with our political system, so why would anyone want to bring them back? There are two basic arguments. Trump made one on Tuesday.
"Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a system of earmarks," said Trump. "One thing it did is it brought everybody together."
This is pure golden-ageism. There was a higher degree of bipartisanship in the past. There were also earmarks in the past. But bringing back earmarks won't revitalize bipartisanship any more than forcing members of Congress to use rotary phones.
Earmarks also run counter to everything Trump supposedly wants to do.
"Earmarks are the antithesis of the 'drain the swamp' election that sent President Trump to the White House. They are corrupt, inequitable, and wasteful," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal conservative group that campaigned for killing earmarks. "We urge President Trump to reconsider and withdraw his recommendation upon consideration of the sordid history of earmarks."
If a bill can't pass without bribing backbenchers with teapot museums and turtle tunnels—real, actual earmark projects of the past—you have to consider the possibility the bill doesn't deserve to pass.
True, getting rid of earmarks hasn't fixed the problem of wasteful government spending. There's still plenty of outrageous executive branch agency spending. Citizens Against Government Waste publishes an annual round-up of the most wasteful examples, and the so-called "Pig Book" hasn't gotten any thinner since Congress banned earmarks.
The National Institutes of Health, for example, the geniuses behind the $175,000 grant given to the University of Kentucky to study how cocaine affects the sex drives of Japanese quail. Or the $3.6 million of taxpayers money for researchers at Bowdoin College to ponder "what makes goldfish feel sexy?".
It's in part because of that kind of profligate federal spending that congressional earmarks might make a comeback. Some members of Congress believe—correctly—that such spending decisions should rest with them. After all, Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution clearly gives Congress exclusive control over such matters.
That's exactly the argument that some Republicans are now making. Rep. Robert Anderholt (R-Ala.) told Politico that bringing back earmarks would empower Congress over executive agencies.
"The misnomer about that is that it is a 'swamp' issue," Anderholt said. "You could make the argument that this is more getting rid of the swamp, holding people accountable."
Versions of this argument have been rattling around Congress since late 2016, when some GOP members reportedly approached Ryan with the idea of bringing back earmarks.
"I think you're going to see a very refreshing movement to get that power [of the purse] back to the people," then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News in November 2016.
Now, even some members of the conservative Freedom Caucus appear to be getting on board with the idea—though they stress that earmarks will be done the right way this time around, with requests submitted through the committee process rather than being dropped into spending bills at the last minute, as had become the custom before the ban.
"I was totally in support of a temporary moratorium on earmarks because it was so badly abused," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told Fox Business Network on Wednesday. "But we're the ones that should be putting the specific line items in that appropriations bill as to where the money goes, not the bureaucrats."
Congress should indeed take back their authority over spending decisions. That means investigating federal agencies that misspend taxpayers' money and cutting their budgets accordingly. Congress could pass laws tightening rules for the awarding of contracts or grants. That's what taking back the power of purse would look like. Lawmakers should clean up the executive branch's mess before making their own.
Resurrecting the earmark would not be an exercise in fiscal conservatism, no matter how much Republicans try to dress it up in constitutional language. Promises that they would be handled differently are only as good as any political promise. When the going gets tough, there's no doubt congressional leaders would turn to earmarks as a way to grease the skids. Members of the Freedom Caucus, so many of whom got elected by running against business-as-usual Washington politics, should realize as much.
"Earmarks are a lazy, unfair and corrupt way to circumvent the authorization and appropriations process," says Schatz. "They have been roundly excoriated by the conservative movement upon which Republicans depend for their political lives."
Republican lawmakers would be wise to pay attention to that last part. Heading into a midterm election where all signs point to a Democratic wave, the last thing many GOP members of Congress would want is a grassroots backlash.
David McIntosh, president of the Club For Growth, which backs conservative Republican candidates, went beyond the mere suggestion of such a backlash. "If Republicans bring back earmarks," he said in a statement," then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House."
And, quite frankly, they'd deserve it.
This article has been updated to correct the party identification of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.