OF ALL THE strange happenings in Donald Trump’s Washington, the sudden revival of interest in congressional earmarks surely ranks as one of the oddest.
President Trump, in unexpected comments, waxed nostalgic for the earmark era, when senators and congressmen were allowed to slip individual pork-barrel projects into spending bills. The practice, which flourished from the mid 1990s until then-House Speaker John Boehner banned it in 2011, encouraged corruption, squandered public money on bridges to nowhere and teapot museums, and ended in prison terms for two GOP congressmen. But supporters — and, yes, they still exist — say earmarks helped lubricate lawmaking, providing chits for horse-trading and encouraging the deal-cutting spirit that’s said to be missing from Congress today. “There was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said.
But Trump’s reading of the history is all wrong — both for the magical value he ascribed to earmarks, and for the corruption, mismanagement, and unfairness he left out. No good came from earmarks, and no good would come from restoring them.
Start with the supposed “great friendliness” Trump claims existed in the halcyon days of earmarks. Few other congressional observers remember the late ’90s and early 2000s as any kind of Golden Age. “I don’t think people think of the Newt Gingrich years as when everyone got along so wonderfully,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government-ethics group that opposes earmarks. Gingrich’s successors in GOP leadership, men like Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, are infrequently remembered as great statesmen who bridged partisan differences and used earmarks to forge landmark legislation.
Nor is there much empirical evidence to support the idea that Congress got more of its normal workload done in those days compared to now. By one measure of congressional competence — the ability to pass annual appropriation bills on time — Congress actually seems to have improved since ditching earmarks. The House passed all 12 of its appropriation bills on time last year, for the first time in years, with nary an earmark.
And some of the alarms raised after Boehner banned earmarks have proved false. Take the water resources bill, which funds things like harbor dredging and canal locks. It’s supposed to be reauthorized every two years. But during the 2000s — when defenders of pork would have you believe Congress was passing legislation in its sleep — lawmakers struggled, passing the 2007 bill five years late, despite $19 billion in pork. Getting rid of earmarks, by the logic of their defenders, should have made it impossible to pass water legislation ever again — and lawmakers from both parties grumbled about having to abide by the ban. But they adjusted, and water resources reauthorizations have passed smoothly in 2014 and again in 2016.
In place of earmarks, federal agencies should make spending decisions on highways, ports, bridges, defense, and other spending categories based on merit. And if Congress doesn’t like the way agencies make decisions, they should be using their oversight power to reform them, not attempting shortcuts through earmarks. Members of Congress like to say they understand the needs of their districts better than “unelected bureaucrats,” but making spending decisions on the basis of mere political clout is no improvement.
The toxicity in Washington is undoubtedly real (as the president knows, having played a big role in creating it). It’s comforting to imagine there might be a solution to partisan gridlock as simple as restoring earmarks. But Trump, and the earmark revanchists in Congress, are selling the public a bridge back to nowhere.