While President Trump wants to drain the swamp, his White House has been repeatedly checked by a gridlocked Congress. Now, Trump wants to grease the wheels a bit. He wants to bring back earmarks.
“I think we should look at a form of earmarks,” Trump told lawmakers gathered at the White House on Tuesday. “One thing it did is it brought everybody together.” The other thing it will do is permanently rebrand the party of fiscal responsibility into the party of graft, pork, and greed.
To be sure, earmarks make the legislative process a bit more efficient. And it’s understandable why a dealmaker like Trump would find them appealing as a negotiating aid. But they also lead to waste. Even the president admitted as much when he said that earmarks “got a little bit out of hand.”
When negotiations break down, obstructionists sell their votes for things like a $233-million bridge nobody needs, $3.4-million worth of tunnels for turtles, and $500,000 for a teapot museum. Old, greasy hands like former Rep. Charlie Rangel were even able to secure funding for personal monuments. That New York Democrat christened the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service with $1.9 million in taxpayer money.
Most lawmakers don’t remember, though. When some Republicans tried to bring earmarks back shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, warned that "63 percent of House Republicans have been elected since 2010" and as a result "have no personal knowledge or experience with earmarks."
Those post-pork members didn’t witness the conservative crusade to end the practice. "If there's a public vote [on earmarks]," former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., warned me last February, "Republicans are going to get killed by some of these grassroots organizations out there now." In other words, they can’t comprehend the rake they would be stepping on if they do this before the midterm elections.
Conservatives generally bristle at earmarks, and any effort to restore them would risk alienating some of Trump’s most dedicated supporters in Congress. “Obviously, earmarks and the decision to bring them back is more a function of the will of the 435 members of the house,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told me, before adding that the president “already has broad discretion on all allocations of funds within an agency."
“Any earmark restoration would have to be supported by the American people and they have consistently not been in favor of such a move,” the North Carolina Republican concluded.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., put it more bluntly. “We just had a political revolution launched against the swamp [across] the political spectrum all the way from Bernie to Trump voters,” Brat told me. “I don’t think any of those folks along that entire spectrum would be in favor of earmarks.”
Brat and Coburn and Meadows are right. Hopefully, Trump listens.