When President Trump suggested to a bipartisan group of lawmakers this week that “maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” his remarks were met with a roomful of laughs.
But in truth, Trump’s comments should have been met with a firm shaking of heads and a resounding “hell, no.” On the subject of earmarks, maintaining the status quo is the right move for Republicans—and in fact, Republicans’ earmark ban might be considered one of the few obviously good policy decisions the party has collectively pushed in years.
Republicans banned earmarks in early 2011. Immediately, there was chatter about bringing back earmarks in some form. Certain appropriators wanted to “clarify” what could or could not be defined as an “earmark” to allow some things that would plainly qualify as earmarks on their face to sneak into bills.
Others outside government have called for the reinstatement of earmarks to make government “work” again. The theory is that if you allow Congress to “grease the skids,” legislation will move, more things will happen, and congressmen will be happier because everyone will get to “wet their beak” a little more. Line items for cowboy poetry festivals might result in a nice, big bipartisan entitlement overhaul—supposedly—though this also sounds a little like the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from lobbyists who know earmarks were a great line of business before the GOP killed them.
Others like former Rep. Ron Paul argue that earmarking is an actual congressional “responsibility,” that money will be spent one way or another and an earmark is just Congress—comprised of actual representatives elected by actual voters—directing unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats’ spending. It also ensures that money paid in by taxpayers comes back to local communities the way they, or their congressman, assess best suits them, say this camp.
Not all of these arguments are wholly without merit. In the heyday of earmarks, Congress certainly seemed to pass more big, meaningful bills than it does now (although many people would dispute whether the bills they passed were, in fact, meritorious). Undoubtedly, many taxpayers want to see evidence of their dollars at work somewhere within a 50-mile radius of their own homes. They probably agree with Ron Paul on some level.
But the fact is, earmarks did divert a large amount of money—even if not percentage-wise, in terms of the overall federal budget—to projects that taxpayers who are not themselves politicians or lobbyists had little reason to compulsorily support. Surveys show health care to be a top concern of voters, not the opening of a teapot museum in Michigan or the construction of that famed “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. To the extent that those things are priorities, they should be funded by private donors, or state or local governments.
But of course, that’s still not the main issue with earmarks. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, the real problem here is the corruption, stupid.
It is not coincidental that earmarks proliferated at the same time that ethical scandals in Washington, D.C., were booming. They represented an easy thing for ethically challenged Congress critters to “sell,” and sell them they did—and no doubt would again, were the earmark ban gutted.
The year 2006 represented the high-water mark in terms of earmarking. According to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), one of the nation’s foremost opponents of earmarks, in 2006, a record $29 billion in spending was earmarked.
But in the years while Congress was building up to that massive figure, we saw Bob Ney, then a House committee chairman, trade earmarks for campaign cash, piles of gambling chips, swanky vacays, the best seats in the house for sporting events, and pricey meals.
We also saw Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, convicted on corruption charges related to his earmarking in 2006, engage in a pattern of using his earmarking capability to reward contractors who were bribing him. A key aspect of prosecutors’ arguments in the Cunningham case was that the congressman’s conduct, in which earmarking was the vehicle for bringing in cash and gifts, destroyed confidence in government and wasted taxpayer money.
In the years immediately following the Ney and Cunningham convictions, CAGW identified an ongoing problem with members of Congress using earmarks to benefit “locations very close to real estate they or their family members own,” a clear example of using earmarking to boost their or their family’s own net worth (PDF)—and very much not what we elect legislators to do in Washington, D.C.
And all this has mattered for the GOP, politically. While the common perception is that the Iraq War was the most important factor in determining how people voted in the 2006 midterm elections, in actual fact more voters in exit polls that year said corruption and ethics were important issues than said the same about the Iraq War. The topic of corruption and ethics is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to that of earmarks. And this is why we’ve seen comments from both Speaker Ryan and economic conservative groups like the Club for Growth attacking earmarks as the ultimate symbol of “the swamp,” and things that must not be brought back.
Of course, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the era of heavy earmarking was not, in fact, one of Democrats and Republicans holding hands and singing kumbaya. The Bush era—when earmarks went gangbusters—was, in fact, one of extreme partisanship and negative politicking. Congress did pass a few big things during the Bush years—Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, tax cuts, and the Iraq War resolution. But none of those can truly be called bipartisan. All of them got some Democratic votes, but they weren’t true bipartisan efforts. That was comprehensive immigration reform, which failed in the exact year during which earmarking peaked. So even the “greasing the skids” argument falls a little flat when we take a close look.
For all these reasons, Republicans, and Democrats for that matter, should reject Trump’s suggestion. Let’s keep earmarks where they belong: in their proverbial grave.