Conservatives: Trump tone deaf on earmarks

President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House Wednesday.
President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House Wednesday. AP

Lead us not into temptation, conservative lawmakers are warning colleagues. Please don’t make us bring earmarks back.

Earmarks involved slipping local projects into massive budget bills. They came to symbolize corruption and runaway government spending, and critics worry their revival could spark a fresh round of scandals.

“Just because all things are lawful, doesn’t mean they are expedient,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, which has about 150 House members.

Walker invoked the Apostle Paul to argue against giving lawmakers the “power of the purse” that the Constitution bestows on Congress. There’s too much “temptation to abuse” them, Walker said.

The push to allow lawmakers to direct some federal spending got a powerful boost this week from President Donald Trump, who suggested that the practice could revive the lost art of deal-making and return bonhomie to Washington.

“There was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said at a White House meeting with Republicans and Democrats.

“Starting with the Port of Charleston. Absolutely,” retorted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Among some Republicans, there’s been a push to bring back earmarks on a limited basis, calling them “congressionally directed spending” and allowing them only for certain projects.

Walker said he appreciates that the negotiator in Trump wants to bring earmarks back, but said they run counter to candidate Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp.

“I’d be careful about allowing the algae-infested waters that actually fill the swamp back up,” Walker said.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives enacted a temporary prohibition on earmarks in 2010 after scandals and a growing belief among voters that they were wasteful and corrupt. The Senate followed suit in 2011.

The ban came after a series of political embarrassments. A 2009 spending bill contained about 9,000 earmarks totaling $5 billion. The 2005 “Bridge to Nowhere” that extended to a small Alaska island became fodder for earmark opponents.

Some lawmakers nonetheless want to revisit the issue, arguing that its their right to determine how federal dollars are spent. Lawmakers who talk to their constituents and visit their districts are more attuned to local needs, they say.

Reps. Tom Rooney, R-Fla. and John Culberson, R-Texas, have introduced proposals to revive earmarks on a limited basis. Rooney would lift the earmark ban on Army Corps of Engineers water projects, allowing members of Congress to determine where to spend the money. The House Rules Committee will hold a hearing on the congressionally directed spending ideas next week.

“There are circumstances where you could have congressionally directed spending without returning to the days of unlimited earmarks,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. “One way to drain the swamp is to return power to the elected representatives and the people and to not have decisions made by bureaucrats in windowless cubicles.”

But even tiptoeing back into earmark territory will find conservatives ready to block the effort. The chairman of the influential House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he would oppose their return.

“When you’re talking about draining the swamp, it is very difficult in the same mouthful to suggest that we’re going to re-institute earmarks,” Meadows said.

Earmarks, he said, make it easier for lawmakers “to spend more and dole out special political favors.” He dismissed suggestions that transparency such as real-time reporting would improve conditions.

“I haven’t seen any plan that is so transparent that it’s not corruptible,” he said. “ I don’t know of anything that would not be abused by this institution.”

Several conservative groups also panned the call for a comeback. “It is nearly unthinkable that after President Trump ran a historically successful election to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, D.C., Congress would consider reinstating one of the most egregious examples of cronyism on Capitol Hill,” said Michael Needham, chief executive officer at the conservative Heritage Action for America.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, Rules Committee chairman, rejected the notion that the old earmark system would make a comeback.

“Earmarks are in moratorium and will stay there,” Sessions said. “If a member wants to talk about earmarks, they can, but that is not the purpose of the hearing. The purpose of the hearing is to hear where we’re going, not where we were.”

He said he’s open to looking at a process that “would be meritorious, that would be transparent, that would allow states an equal opportunity to be participatory, that would have to require votes, that would not allow anyone to airdrop things in.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a former state auditor who was a driving force behind the push to impose a the 2011 earmark ban, taunted Trump on Twitter for making the suggestion.

But not all Democrats shared her distaste.

“I always said that President Donald Trump from time to time could lift up something good,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who intends to testify in support of earmarks during hearings next week.

Cleaver said there’s now “a new consciousness ... that maybe we need to have that power back,” since earmarks offer the chance for congressional lawmakers to show that they’re doing something for constituents.

“If we pass some kind of transportation bill and we don’t have earmarks, the money goes to the Missouri Department of Transportation, and my priorities are not met,” Cleaver said.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark