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'Crazy talk' vs. 'Smart': Lawmakers split over Trump's earmark proposal

When President Donald Trump stoked the idea of lifting the ban on earmarks, he ignited debate over an old congressional tactic loathed by the public and killed seven years ago by House Republicans.

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Ashley Killough
Deirdre Walsh (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — When President Donald Trump stoked the idea of lifting the ban on earmarks, he ignited debate over an old congressional tactic loathed by the public and killed seven years ago by House Republicans.

At a meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, Trump said a return to pork barrel spending could ease gridlock in Washington. "Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks," Trump said, as members around the table laughed. "You should do it, and I'm there with you."

His comment prompted mixed reaction among lawmakers across the political spectrum, with many expressing concern about abuse and runaway spending. While some agree the budget process needs reform, others, like Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, said it would be a "big mistake" because earmarks have been "tantamount to bribery."

"I'll bet, once the President thinks it through some more, he'll probably end up changing his mind," he said, adding: "It would hurt our efforts to drain the swamp."

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, put it bluntly: "It's crazy talk."

Flake acknowledged earmarks help drive people to support legislation, but he said they can be politically damning. "We got beaten like a borrowed mule in the 2006 elections largely because of the corruption that came with earmarks," Flake said. "People are forgetting that time. It was awful; we don't want to go back to that."

When Republicans retook control of the House in 2011, one of then-House Speaker John Boehner's first actions was to ban earmarks. Before then, members reluctant to support certain spending bills or other legislative priorities of top leaders could be won over with earmarked funds for pet projects in their districts.

Without such enticement, members are less likely to compromise, critics say.

"This system really lends itself to not getting along. It lends itself to hostility and anger," Trump said. While he encouraged lawmakers to consider returning to earmarks, he also argued they'll need "better controls" in allocating funds, saying "it got a little bit out of hand" in the past.

"Our system right now, the way it's set up, will never bring people together."

While unexpected Wednesday, Trump turned a spotlight on an issue that's been under the radar in Congress for close to a year. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said his committee will examine alternatives on the issue soon, but he was quick to stress that Republicans aren't talking about bringing back "earmarks" but looking at "congressionally directed spending."

He explained the difference, saying the old system of earmarks wasn't transparent and was skewed toward lawmakers who sat on certain committees that could control various pots of federal money. He believes a new approach would require members to go through a vetting process and compete for resources.

"Anybody that uses 'earmarks' is irresponsible," Sessions said about the term.

He stressed that they "are not making a decision" right away, and the committee is set to hold hearings next week.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Ryan attempted to quash the idea of reviving earmarks, saying it wasn't the right time. "We just had a 'drain the swamp' election," Ryan told Republicans. "Let's not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later."

He promised to let Republicans bring up the topic at a later date, and now, more than a year later, Ryan appears to be opening the door to a debate, though it's safe to say he's still not a fan. Just hours before Trump made his comments on Wednesday, Ryan was asked whether earmarks will have a comeback.

"Conversations are having a comeback," he told reporters at a news conference. "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."

Lawmakers have mixed reactions to Trump greenlighting the idea. Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida said it was "smart" for Trump to make the suggestion. "The way we do appropriations is badly broken here, and we really need to reform it in a way that gets Republicans and Democrats to work together."

Rep. Louie Gohmert, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday the ban on earmarks gives too much power to the executive branch over how to spend money.

"I was totally in support of a temporary moratorium on earmarks because it was so badly abused," the Texas Republican said on Fox Business Network. "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."

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma was sitting in the meeting when Trump made the comment. "It seemed very out of context in the meeting, quite frankly," Lankford said. "I don't agree with having earmarks back on the table. I think there are better ways to build comity than with somebody else's money."

Democrats are likely to use the effort to revive earmarks as a midterm campaign issue, pointing out that a party that pledged to "drain the swamp" is now preparing to re-institute a practice that prompted a major public backlash a decade ago.

But Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two House Democrat, embraced the possible return of earmarks, agreeing with the sentiment that Congress should have all the spending authority. Forcing lawmakers, he said, "to go hat in hand" to the administration for money for a bridge or other project in their district "undermines what the Constitution provides and the relationship of equality between the legislative and executive branches of government."

He stressed Democrats reformed the process when they controlled the House in 2007, which had been abused over time, to require members to post requests for spending projects online.

Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz said he hasn't made up his mind yet, but feels wary of returning to the days of "bridges to nowhere." As for potential political backlash, Gaetz argued the swamp could still be drained by returning spending decisions back to Congress rather than "bureaucrats in windowless cubicles who have green shades on their reading glasses."

Texas GOP Rep. Roger Williams, elected in 2012, told reporters he ran against the practice of doling out money for certain district-specific projects when he first mounted a campaign for his House seat.

"Earmarks out on the hinterlands -- it's not a good word right now," he said. "We have to be careful."

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