WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump delivered an unexpected and passionate case for congressional earmarks Tuesday, injecting new momentum into a quiet effort to restore that legislative practice after seven years of dormancy.
Speaking before television cameras during a White House meeting with more than a dozen lawmakers, Trump diverged from the stated topic of immigration to air a lament all too frequently heard on Capitol Hill: Without earmarks - the custom of individual lawmakers directing taxpayer funds to specific projects - Congress just doesn’t seem to work as well.
“You know, our system lends itself to not getting things done,” Trump said. “And I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”
“In the old days of earmarks,” he continued, “you can say what you want about certain presidents and others . . . they went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system. And maybe we should think about it.”
Trump only briefly acknowledged the flip side of the earmark debate. Rampant abuse of the process including scandals where earmarks were traded for bribes, political favors and campaign donations led then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to abolish them in 2011. Her successor, John Boehner, R-Ohio, followed suit, and leaders of both parties have beat back attempts to revive them ever since.
But Trump’s two-minute tribute to earmarks gave a boost to a group of Republicans, mainly appropriators who are charged with writing spending bills, who have been lobbying House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP leaders for their restoration - albeit in limited form - for more than a year.
“Where do I sign?” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and housing and attended Tuesday’s White House meeting.
After the appropriators pushed for a change to party rules in late 2016, Ryan prevailed on them to withdraw the effort, arguing it would be unwise for Republicans to bring back earmarks immediately after a “drain the swamp” election. Instead, he promised the issue would be studied and considered at a later date.
That date may have come: The House Rules Committee said Tuesday it would hold two hearings next week on whether to restore earmarks in what GOP aides characterized as a long-delayed fulfillment of Ryan’s promises.
But years after their abolishment, the subject of earmarks generates a fierce split that does not nearly fall along party lines. Appropriators from both parties bristle, arguing that Congress has essentially ceded authority to the executive branch and lost the grease that kept their bills moving across the Hill.
“It worked,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who sat next to Trump and found himself in rare agreement with the president.
But plenty of lawmakers feel little need to restore a practice that a significant portion of the public came to see as legalized graft - especially after a series of elections in which voters revolted against the Washington establishment.
“Huh? The President just embraced earmarks? Talk about the swampiest of swamp creatures. You gotta be kidding me,” tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., after Trump made his remarks.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, shared that dismay: “I don’t remember us campaigning on bringing back earmarks.”
That sentiment was also expressed by the leaders of several conservative groups who have been critical of the GOP establishment. Club for Growth President David McIntosh said that restoring earmarks “virtually guarantees that they will lose the House.”
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House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Tuesday that he supported revisiting earmarks and said that there could be a process that could allow lawmakers to fund projects in a “transparent and meritorious” manner. Some proposals would limit earmarks only to state or local governments or to certain agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are not moving backwards,” Sessions said. “It would not be a recommendation for us to move back to almost any part of a system that I saw that existed before 2011.”