Long before Donald Trump burst on the political scene, Congress had its own version of “The Art of the Deal” as members shoveled federal pork to states and congressional districts via the earmark. It was a bad way to do business, being absent the good government qualities of oversight and accountability that politicians so cherish, at least on the stump.
But now some federal officeholders, including President Trump, want to bring back the earmark to advance projects that are being held up in part by a lack of congressional bipartisanship. No question, it would get federal funds flowing again, and in the worst way.
Earmarking federal money for specific projects without the requisite scrutiny was once an essential part of the horse trading by which politicians advanced their home state and in-district projects. Those projects helped them stay in Congress, where they usually became more adept at the process – slipping earmarks into spending bills – as time went by.
But more review by taxpayer groups, such as Citizens Against Government Waste and the Taxpayers for Common Sense, increased the public’s awareness of earmarks, such as Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that received regular federal allocations by virtue of Republican Rep. Don Young’s chairmanship of the House Public Works Committee. The project was ultimately stopped, but not until $235 million in federal funding had been allocated.
The political value of earmarks withered under the spotlight, and the practice was finally banned in the House in 2009 at the recommendation of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Last week, however, President Trump gave earmarks a thumbs up as a way to restore congressional bipartisanship and advance public works projects. After all, where’s the fun of being in Congress if you can’t bring home the bacon?
“We have to put better controls because it got a little bit out of hand,” Mr. Trump said last week. “But maybe that brings people together, because our system right now, the way it’s set up, will never bring people together.”
That the House has begun hearings on the possibility indicates the willingness of some to go back to the bad old days, when success was counted in part by how much a congressman could grab for his district.
First District Rep. Mark Sanford isn’t buying it. He outlined his opposition in comments Wednesday. “With the federal government $20 trillion in debt, it’s evident that Congress has no trouble finding ways to spend money. There is no need to open the floodgates to pet projects, which will incentivize more spending with less oversight. Indeed, with earmarks, everyone expects a slice of the pie.
“While an individual district may get funding for a special project, there are 434 other districts that are expecting and demanding the same. And projects that wouldn’t usually be funded by the federal government will get crammed into bills without the transparency and deliberation that usually accompanies the legislative process.”
Rep. Sanford declared that Congress’ focus “should be less on how to spend more, and more on how to spend responsibly. Reinstating earmarks certainly isn’t the way to accomplish that.”
Mr. Sanford has been opposed to earmarks since his first turn in the House in the 1990s. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is another longstanding opponent.
“We gave up oversight of just about everything just to focus on feathering our own nest,” Mr. Flake said, in comments to The Washington Post. “It’s not worth it, it really isn’t.”
Advocates of the earmark process cite the great things that have been achieved by getting a quick federal fix adeptly provided by a knowledgeable congressman. There also have been plenty of indefensible allocations obtained from the federal purse simply because some congressman was able to do so.
To hear Mr. Trump extoll the prospects of a return to the congressional trough is pretty rich. Isn’t he the candidate who promised to “drain the swamp”?
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