It was an unusual aside in an already unusual meeting.
At one point during Tuesday’s remarkable 55-minute televised negotiation with members of Congress over immigration reform, President Trump suddenly switched gears and came out in favor of … earmarks, those spending deals inserted into legislation for individual lawmakers.
Banned by Congress in 2011 for abuse and waste, earmarks could actually bring back bipartisanship and help get things done on the Hill, said the president, who famously prides himself on his dealmaking prowess.
“[Earmarks] did have some problems,” Mr. Trump admitted, saying there would need to be better controls. “But I think you should look at a form of earmarks,” he urged. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina piped up: “Starting with the Port of Charleston. Absolutely.”
Around the table came laughter (some of it nervous?). But it must have been an uncomfortable moment for a Republican such as House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California – sitting just two seats to the president’s left, and a well-known crusader against the practice that in some cases has sent lawmakers and lobbyists to jail.
Congressman McCarthy’s 2010 book, “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” opens with a broadside against earmarks. In it, he and his co-authors, rising Reps. Paul Ryan, now the speaker of the House, and Eric Cantor, who lost to a tea-party candidate in 2014, are depicted huddling over Diet Cokes and bottled water just hours after House Republicans agreed to a one-year moratorium on earmarks in March 2010.
Ryan said they’d been working against earmarks like Sisyphus for five years, but the rock kept rolling back on them because of the lure of sweetheart deals.
Republicans had just endured a wave of scandals surrounding the practice, most notably involving Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R) of California, who was jailed in 2006 for seven years after he admitted taking bribes in exchange for doling out government contracts.
And Republican voters were enraged over deficits and debt piling up, voicing their anger at town halls.
"If you've been out there lately, you know that the public is screaming for this," said McCarthy, speaking of the earmark moratorium that eventually became a ban in both chambers. He asserted that the new Republican recruits – the so-called tea-party wave that would flip the House to the GOP in elections that fall – would take the party back to its roots.
The about-face this week by the party's standard-bearer didn't escape Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia.
“I can’t help but note the delicious irony of a man who talked about draining the swamp who now wants to fill up the swamp with one of the original swamp creatures – the earmark,” says Congressman Connolly, speaking of Trump.
But some Republicans – and Democrats – back the president on this one. “It worked,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois.
Indeed, the House Rules Committee next week will hold two hearings on the subject. Members should have “conversations” about earmarks, Ryan said on Tuesday, while Rules chairman Pete Sessions (R) of Texas, told reporters that he would favor moving to a process that is “transparent and meritorious” and does not repeat the mistakes of the past.
“There’s actually a pretty strong case to be made for earmarks,” says John Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
First, he says, is the constitutional argument: It’s Congress that has the power of the purse. By stripping away the ability of individual lawmakers to direct spending, power is ceded to the executive branch, and not always efficiently.
Some members of Congress are frustrated with projects stalling at the local level, particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers, which Ryan told reporters “has not been up to snuff about getting its job done.”
On a more practical level, earmarks enable leaders to make deals, to get members to work together and compromise. “Arguably, the absence of earmarks makes it much harder for Congress to do its work,” says Professor Pitney.
Doing it transparently, rather than allowing members to “airdrop” earmarks under cover, would go a long way toward curbing abuses, says Pitney. In the vast majority of cases, members love to take credit for their earmarks, he says. “If something’s secret, something’s wrong.”
Presumably, the president brought this subject up because most of the work ahead in Congress will require bipartisan support – and difficult choices.
This differs from last year, when the Republican-controlled Congress used a narrow budget tool and new rule to approve a Supreme Court justice and pass a massive tax cut on party-line, simple-majority votes.
But Trump’s big idea drew immediate fire from many members of his own base. The president of the conservative Club for Growth said an earmark comeback “virtually guarantees” that Republicans will lose the House.
“Earmarks for teapot museums, indoor rainforests, and bridges to nowhere should not be restored; they should be permanently banned,” said Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste watchdog group in a statement. He called earmarks “corrupt, inequitable and wasteful,” and said they are the “antithesis” of the drain-the-swamp election that sent Trump to the White House.
Key conservatives on the Hill agree. Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, who heads the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told reporters that earmarks have generally been used to “spend more and dole out political favors.” He said he couldn’t imagine that earmarks would be supported by voters back home “in this environment.”