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Republicans Have Made Two Arguments for Bringing Back Earmarks. They're Both Wrong.

Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, in part, by promising to kill earmarks. They might lose Congress in 2018 by bringing them back to life.

Pool/ABACA/NewscomPool/ABACA/NewscomRepublicans 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.

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  • Hugh Akston||

    It's kind of cute when people try to point out that something Trump supports today is something he opposed yesterday.

  • Rich||

    "One thing it did is it brought everybody together."

    You know who else brought everybody together ....

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The Beatles?

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Concentration camps?

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    crap

  • Thomas L. Knapp||

    The "let legislators rather than the executive designate spending specifics" argument dates from a lot further back than 2016.

    Back in the day, one of Texas's biggest pork-barrel earmarkers made exactly the same argument to explain why he was earmarking money for nursing schools and an institute to improve shrimping techniques, etc. in the Houston area. The money was going to be spent (even though he would vote against the spending bill after inserting the earmarks), so why shouldn't it be spent in his district on things his constituents could use?

    You may remember his name -- Ron Paul.

  • Rich||

    Probably why he lost his presidential run.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You mean Galveston, Texas and the 14th Texas Congressional District?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    "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."
    Earmarks per se are not a bad form of allocating money. The way they are used is where the trouble comes in.

    If Congress forced the government agencies sending grants to state law enforcement that they cannot have license plate scanners at all in their departments, earmarks would be a good thing.

  • DJF||

    I must admit I don't know why politicians handing out taxpayer money is worse then bureaucrats handing out taxpayer money?

  • Ship of Theseus||

    ^This. They're stealing my money to do shit I don't want either way.

    The only potential argument I can see is about transparency and the proper delegation of power(s). But, really, hasn't that ship been long at sea?

  • Sir Chips Alot||

    It will be different this time. They will put the right Top Men on a committee to review all earmarks.

  • chemjeff||

    Yeah I saw that video of the "negotiation session". It was kinda humorous, really. Everyone in the room seemed trying to manipulate Trump to repeat their position. Feinstein said "let's have a clean DACA bill" and Trump said yeah, let's do that. Then McCarthy said "no, you need border security along with DACA" and Trump said yeah, let's do that. For a "master negotiator", Trump sure seemed extremely flexible.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    He doesn't have a fucking clue about any of it. He only knows what Fox News tells him, half of which is about celebrity birthdays.

  • Tony||

    Earmarks were easy targets for criticism, but banning them manifestly did not result in a more functional legislative process. With appropriate checks for egregiousness, they serve an important function, it turns out. They are things that can be put on or taken off the table--important to have in a negotiation. Without them nothing gets done. And only the vulgarest forms of libertarianism thinks that's the best possible scenario (it being too dumb to realize that it's thus endorsing the status quo).

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    And this is a problem because...

  • Art Gecko||

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there only two ways for Congress to spend money: for a specific project (earmark) or just give a check to a government agency to spend as it pleases? Shouldn't ***EVERY*** penny be earmarked? How does a blank check to an agency get rid of the corruption of lobbyists? The lobbyists will just lobby the agency heads instead of Congress. It's probably much harder to find the waste when it's done by agency heads.

  • Warren||

    Exactly right. At least with earmarks you can see where it's going. If it's going to pork, then it's easier to identify. This article is straight up stupid.

  • Robert||

    Reason bloggers combine libertarianism with opining for "scientific" gov't, & in this case because they judge there's not a strong enough cx of acc'tability to liberty (because pork is a result of acc'tability even though acc'tability is also the theoretic sol'n to it), their belief in scientific governance comes to the fore, & they belittle the acc'tability argument.

  • vek||

    I pretty much agree with this line of thinking. Congress should control the purse... OF COURSE they're going to misspend money! They're asshole politicians. BUT they're the ones who should be making the call, and they can theoretically be held accountable. Career dildos are agencies cannot.

    In theory I guess they can still do the same stuff, it just has to be a clean standalone bill. They can't just toss one into an unrelated bill like they used to be able to do. Which would maybe make it better I guess... But in the real world bribes do in fact work. I imagine many good, and many bad, laws only got through because they bribed off the congressman from whatever bum fuck state with some cash for his district.

    Pros and cons either way, and honestly it probably doesn't make a huge difference either way.

  • Brightly||

    I didn't read the article, but you're wrong.

    The biggest reasons why earmarks are wrong isn't the spending, it is the blatant violation of public trust in the name of "getting things done". It solidifies the mostly correct idea that the purpose of politics is to put the interest of the nation up for sale.

    thanks politicians!!!

  • Liberty Lover||

    The principal is actually rather simple. Earmarks are bad when your party is out of power. Earmarks are good when your party is in power.

    The problem with politicians is they cannot foresee the future, when they will again be out of power, and eventually they will be out of power.

  • ipatrol||

    I'd suggest everyone take a look at "SINGLE SUBJECT RULES AND THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS", which is available freely online.

    A lot of the problem with earmarks, was they were inserted at the comittee stage, and with limitations on the number of amendments one could propose, that made them virtually impossible to dislodge from omnibus bills.

    If this problem were overcome, as the paper suggests, then the issue of earmarks would indeed become little more than a question of whether the details of the purse power are being decided by Congress, or the legislature.

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