Political News

To Grease Wheels of Congress, Trump Suggests Bringing Back Pork

Posted January 10, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Remember the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”? The Montana Sheep Institute or the now-shuttered North Carolina teapot hall of fame?

Congress years ago eliminated funding for these types of pet projects, known as earmarks, after they became derided as government boondoggles, largesse and a pathway to corruption.

President Donald Trump now wants to bring them back.

In a freewheeling meeting about immigration with congressional Republicans and Democrats this week, Trump lamented the gridlock that has gripped the capital in recent years and suggested that earmarks, the practice of stealthily stuffing funding for pet projects into legislation, be exhumed from the legislative graveyard.

“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,” Trump said on Tuesday. “Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

Earmarks have a long and sometimes troubled history in Washington. Through the late 1990s and 2000s, they were used to persuade lawmakers to take tough votes in exchange for financial help back home. That spawned an entire industry of earmark lobbying and sparked some enormous scandals, capped by the downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In 2011, on a bipartisan basis, earmarks were banned.

As they careen toward potentially perilous 2018 midterm elections, Republicans are now actively considering bringing them back. Lawmakers have complained for years that without earmarks, they have no reliable way of funding vital constituent interests, from roads to sewer systems. The House Rules Committee is planning to hold public hearings on the subject next week.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said this week that he supports his party having “conversations” about allowing earmarks to re-emerge.

But while earmarks were once Washington’s favorite fuel, the prospect of their return is already creating backlash.

On Wednesday, both Republican senators from Arizona lashed out at the idea.

Sen. John McCain said on Twitter that earmarks were “the gateway drug to corruption and overspending in Washington.”

“That’s why earmarks were banned and that’s why they shouldn’t be brought back from the dead,” McCain, who made ending earmarks central to his platform when he ran for president, said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Sen. Jeff Flake, who is not seeking re-election but warned that Republicans were putting themselves at serious political risk if they embrace earmarks.

“That’s crazy talk,” said Flake. “We got beaten like a borrowed mule in the 2006 elections largely because of the corruption that came with earmarks.”

In 2006, Flake led an early push to eliminate earmarks. At the time he fought unsuccessfully to strip from an agriculture bill $229,000 for dairy education in Iowa, $180,000 for hydroponic tomatoes in Ohio, $250,000 for the wine industry in California and $6.4 million for research on wood products in 10 states.

Earmarks have also created hives of corruption. That same year, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribes from military contractors to help facilitate government contracts. Two years later, in 2008, Abramoff, who showered members of Congress with gifts in return for favors, was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption.

At the peak of their excess, earmarks still only represented a sliver of the annual federal budget. However, failed or seemingly frivolous projects poisoned the concept and became symbols of fiscal irresponsibility run amok.

The most glaring examples of ugly earmarks have been for projects both big and small.

The most prominent is probably the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that would have connected the Alaskan town of Ketchikan to an airport on the nearby island of Gravina. After securing a $223 million earmark in 2005, the failed project was scrapped 10 years later.

Others that have created dust-ups over the years included money allocated to cowboy poetry gatherings in Nevada, a coyote control program in West Virginia and the half-million allocated by Congress for the Sparta Teapot Museum in North Carolina.

Proponents of earmarks, which often include lobbyists, argue that the elimination of the practice has led to greater gridlock and polarization in Congress and that it is a legitimate part of the job to be appropriating funds to local programs and projects. “It might help a return to regular order in appropriations if they can put earmarks in there,” said Diana Evans, a political-science professor at Trinity College. “The problem is that the narrative, particularly among Republicans, has developed of earmarks being corrupt.”

That narrative started to shift last year after Trump was elected and some House Republicans expressed interest in a return to earmarks. At the time, Ryan delayed action on the idea because it appeared to be at odds with the “drain the swamp” platform that swept Trump to victory.

Trump appeared to recognize that an earmark revival would need to be regulated.

“We have to put better controls because it got a little bit out of hand, but maybe that brings people together,” he said. “Because our system right now, the way it’s set up, will never bring people together.”

The president’s sudden earmarks support drew cheers from some House Republicans such as Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida. He has been pushing for an exception to the earmark ban to secure more money for modernizing the deteriorating water infrastructure in his state.

“I have received overwhelming support from people back home in Florida who expect me — not unelected bureaucrats — to make sure their tax dollars are invested in important programs and projects in their communities,” Rooney said.

Democrats have also expressed mixed views about earmarks. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, said on Wednesday that he was in favor of them, while Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri charged Trump with hypocrisy.

“Talk about the swampiest of swamp creatures,” McCaskill wrote in a post on Twitter. “You gotta be kidding me.” Conservative groups are loudly urging Republicans to stand down.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth. “The bridge to nowhere is a perfect example and we saw time and time and again why it leads to ridiculous results.”