Politics & Policy

Return of the Ultimate Swamp Creature

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Trump’s idea to revive earmarks might eliminate gridlock — but only at the cost of the routine corruption that drowned a previous generation of Republicans

It got lost amid the rave reviews President Trump got for behaving like a normal president for an hour-long meeting with members of Congress and then was buried completely by his vile remarks about immigration from some sh**ty countries that he subsequently denied. But as much as Trump deserved to be roasted for insulting Haiti and his impulse to discriminate against immigrants from poor countries, it may be that something else he said this week could ultimately do even more damage than those disgraceful words. When the president suggested during the freewheeling televised exchange about immigration that congressional earmarks be revived, he may have set back government reform by more than a decade.

Trump’s support for earmarks didn’t shame the country the way his vulgar comments about immigrants and their countries of origin did. But it is dangerous precisely because some of his listeners and other members of Congress might agree with him. While the GOP leadership may remember why earmarks were abolished and prevent their return from happening, the president was actually right about the purpose they served and how this might solve a problem that conventional wisdom holds is the greatest plague affecting Washington: gridlock.

During the Tuesday meeting, Trump said the following:

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. Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.

Earmarks were the practice by which lawmakers could insert funding for pet projects into unrelated legislation. Acquiescing to such measures was the method by which congressional leaders could win votes for bills. It was the ultimate go-along-to-get-along tactic in which representatives and senators were able to cooperate despite holding wildly different points of view and objectives. So Trump is entirely accurate when he said earmarks helped create a climate that was conducive to the sort of bipartisan deals that enable complicated pieces of legislation to be passed and made Congress a friendlier place for its members.

But as was apparent before they were abolished in 2011, the price for those good feelings was the looting of the Treasury in order to feather the political nests of incumbents.

Apologists for the practice claimed earmarks accounted for only a small part of the federal budget. That was true. But the point about earmarks was not the amount of money spent on them. It was the way they were used by members of the House and Senate, who spent so much of their time in their districts and states swooping down on local institutions accompanied by aides carrying huge cardboard checks for photo ops to remind voters just who it was who paid for the new parking lot at the community center or the local hospital’s new equipment.

Earmark defenders claimed that these measures give Congress control over spending that would otherwise merely revert to the executive branch; what they really did was allow individual senators and congressmen to use the federal purse as a patronage machine. Irrespective of their cost, earmarks were important symbols of the way the system was crafted to shift power away from the taxpayers and into the hands of the political class.

Not every earmark was a boondoggle. Many brought help to their constituents. But some were outrageous. The list of egregious examples is long and includes funding for the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” cowboy-poetry gatherings, and countless institutes and museums centered on obscure topics that existed only to create jobs in local districts rather than out of any intrinsic federal interest in the issue. Like all petty forms of corruption, however, this inevitably led to a few members going even further and using earmarks to help funnel cash into their own accounts. Earmarks were also connected to bribery by lobbyists.

Even when it could be argued that earmarks did some good, the appropriations that subsidized them were not — as members of Congress represented them to their constituencies — free money from Washington. Earmarks returned only a fraction of their tax dollars to citizens, and in an amount doled out with an eyedropper.

Even more to the point, they served the interests of those passing them far more than the recipients. Earmarks were sold as constituent service, but they were the instruments of raw political power that helped make every incumbent a formidable campaign-fundraising machine. Earmarks turned everyone into members of the special-interest groups that competed for the favors of politicians who handed back a small percentage of the money government took from the public in the first place. The politicians then expected votes and campaign contributions in return.

Despite the ongoing angst over the abuses of Washington lobbyists, earmarks were the true mark of congressional corruption; they were the currency with which politicians of both parties are allowed to legally buy votes and to purchase them at cut-rate prices.

If Trump doesn’t understand this, he needs some instruction in recent history. Earmarks were part of the mad spending spree that so disillusioned voters about congressional Republicans before their epic defeat in the 2006 midterms. The last straw was President Obama’s billion-dollar “stimulus” passed by the Democrats who replaced them. It didn’t fix the economy, but it did focus attention on the way that laundry list of earmarks was used by congressmen to feather their personal nests.

It should be remembered that gridlock is built into the design of the system created by the Framers of the Constitution.

The blowback from that debacle and the rest of the Obama administration’s plans to increase the power of the federal government gave new impetus to taxpayer anger and led to the tea-party rebellion of 2010. The Republicans who took control of the House in 2011 ended earmarks but the temptation to go back to the old corrupt ways is always there. Trump’s hunger for legislative success will only add to it. Nor is it surprising that a veteran of the old system like House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer would respond to Trump’s comment by calling for a return to earmarks.

Yes, without earmarks it is harder to forge a bipartisan consensus on anything, let alone hot-button issues such as immigration. But it should be remembered that gridlock is built into the design of the system created by the Framers of the Constitution. It is supposed to be hard to change things. A consensus formed by mass bribery of both Congress and the voters is merely a prescription for a system that is deeply corrupt. Greasing the wheels of democracy by showering favored constituencies with federal cash cheats everyone.

Trump was elected to clear the Washington swamp. But if the best he can do when faced with tough problems is to call for the return of the worst kind of swamp-creature behavior, then it’s time to admit that the inherent conflict between conservatism and his form of populism is too great to be resolved. Perhaps it is to be expected that a device that served politicians so well would make a comeback in less than a decade. But surely the lessons of 2010 are not so far in the past that a new generation can have forgotten that there are worse things than gridlock.


The Return of Earmarks Won’t Solve Congressional Irresponsibility

Drain the Swamp by Killing Earmarks

Eliminating Earmarks is a Phony Issue

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