'Crazy talk' vs. 'Smart': Lawmakers split over Trump's earmark proposal

When President Donald Trump stoked the idea of lifting the ban on earmarks, he ignited debate over an old congression...

Posted: Jan 11, 2018 8:52 AM
Updated: Jan 11, 2018 8:52 AM

When President Donald Trump stoked the idea of lifting the ban on earmarks, he ignited debate over an old congressional tactic loathed by the public and killed seven years ago by House Republicans.

At a meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, Trump said a return to pork barrel spending could ease gridlock in Washington. "Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks," Trump said, as members around the table laughed. "You should do it, and I'm there with you."

Then-House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, banned earmarks in 2011

Earmarks are money for pet projects aimed at buying the support of lawmakers

His comment prompted mixed reaction among lawmakers across the political spectrum, with many expressing concern about abuse and runaway spending. While some agree the budget process needs reform, others, like Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, said it would be a "big mistake" because earmarks have been "tantamount to bribery."

"I'll bet, once the President thinks it through some more, he'll probably end up changing his mind," he said, adding: "It would hurt our efforts to drain the swamp."

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, put it bluntly: "It's crazy talk."

Flake acknowledged earmarks help drive people to support legislation, but he said they can be politically damning. "We got beaten like a borrowed mule in the 2006 elections largely because of the corruption that came with earmarks," Flake said. "People are forgetting that time. It was awful; we don't want to go back to that."

When Republicans retook control of the House in 2011, one of then-House Speaker John Boehner's first actions was to ban earmarks. Before then, members reluctant to support certain spending bills or other legislative priorities of top leaders could be won over with earmarked funds for pet projects in their districts.

Without such enticement, members are less likely to compromise, critics say.

"This system really lends itself to not getting along. It lends itself to hostility and anger," Trump said. While he encouraged lawmakers to consider returning to earmarks, he also argued they'll need "better controls" in allocating funds, saying "it got a little bit out of hand" in the past.

"Our system right now, the way it's set up, will never bring people together."

While unexpected Wednesday, Trump turned a spotlight on an issue that's been under the radar in Congress for close to a year. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said his committee will examine alternatives on the issue soon, but he was quick to stress that Republicans aren't talking about bringing back "earmarks" but looking at "congressionally directed spending."

He explained the difference, saying the old system of earmarks wasn't transparent and was skewed toward lawmakers who sat on certain committees that could control various pots of federal money. He believes a new approach would require members to go through a vetting process and compete for resources.

"Anybody that uses 'earmarks' is irresponsible," Sessions said about the term.

He stressed that they "are not making a decision" right away, and the committee is set to hold hearings next week.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Ryan attempted to quash the idea of reviving earmarks, saying it wasn't the right time. "We just had a 'drain the swamp' election," Ryan told Republicans. "Let's not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later."

He promised to let Republicans bring up the topic at a later date, and now, more than a year later, Ryan appears to be opening the door to a debate, though it's safe to say he's still not a fan. Just hours before Trump made his comments on Wednesday, Ryan was asked whether earmarks will have a comeback.

"Conversations are having a comeback," he told reporters at a news conference. "We've encouraged our members all along to talk about budget process reforms. Many of us have opinions on this issue, but I want our members to have conversations."

Lawmakers have mixed reactions to Trump greenlighting the idea. Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida said it was "smart" for Trump to make the suggestion. "The way we do appropriations is badly broken here, and we really need to reform it in a way that gets Republicans and Democrats to work together."

Rep. Louie Gohmert, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday the ban on earmarks gives too much power to the executive branch over how to spend money.

"I was totally in support of a temporary moratorium on earmarks because it was so badly abused," the Texas Republican said on Fox Business Network. "But we're the ones that should be putting the specific line items in that appropriations bill as to where the money goes, not the bureaucrats."

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma was sitting in the meeting when Trump made the comment. "It seemed very out of context in the meeting, quite frankly," Lankford said. "I don't agree with having earmarks back on the table. I think there are better ways to build comity than with somebody else's money."

Democrats are likely to use the effort to revive earmarks as a midterm campaign issue, pointing out that a party that pledged to "drain the swamp" is now preparing to re-institute a practice that prompted a major public backlash a decade ago.

But Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two House Democrat, embraced the possible return of earmarks, agreeing with the sentiment that Congress should have all the spending authority. Forcing lawmakers, he said, "to go hat in hand" to the administration for money for a bridge or other project in their district "undermines what the Constitution provides and the relationship of equality between the legislative and executive branches of government."

He stressed Democrats reformed the process when they controlled the House in 2007, which had been abused over time, to require members to post requests for spending projects online.

Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz said he hasn't made up his mind yet, but feels wary of returning to the days of "bridges to nowhere." As for potential political backlash, Gaetz argued the swamp could still be drained by returning spending decisions back to Congress rather than "bureaucrats in windowless cubicles who have green shades on their reading glasses."

Texas GOP Rep. Roger Williams, elected in 2012, told reporters he ran against the practice of doling out money for certain district-specific projects when he first mounted a campaign for his House seat.

"Earmarks out on the hinterlands -- it's not a good word right now," he said. "We have to be careful."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 69255

Reported Deaths: 2996
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion15029724
Lake7139273
Elkhart463077
Allen3662158
St. Joseph320379
Hamilton2543104
Hendricks1774105
Vanderburgh176312
Cass17549
Johnson1667118
Porter120939
Tippecanoe111811
Clark110945
Madison86265
LaPorte84329
Howard82465
Kosciusko82213
Bartholomew74847
Marshall74422
Floyd71845
Monroe69530
Delaware65452
Boone64446
Dubois64312
Noble63729
Hancock62838
Jackson5544
LaGrange54610
Warrick52830
Shelby52226
Vigo50910
Grant50729
Dearborn47328
Morgan43732
Henry36418
Clinton3603
White34710
Montgomery34221
Wayne33410
Lawrence33127
Decatur31832
Harrison30022
Miami2592
Scott25210
Daviess24919
Greene24034
Putnam2338
Franklin22911
DeKalb2214
Jennings21312
Jasper2102
Gibson2024
Steuben2013
Ripley1907
Perry17212
Orange16424
Starke1647
Fayette1627
Wabash1613
Posey1600
Jefferson1522
Carroll1482
Whitley1486
Fulton1472
Knox1340
Wells1342
Huntington1193
Tipton1176
Washington1171
Spencer1123
Newton11110
Randolph1074
Clay1015
Adams822
Owen821
Jay810
Rush804
Sullivan781
Pulaski711
Brown701
Fountain642
Benton600
Blackford552
Ohio514
Parke481
Pike470
Crawford440
Switzerland430
Martin420
Vermillion420
Union330
Warren191
Unassigned0202

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 95106

Reported Deaths: 3570
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin17404515
Cuyahoga12881482
Hamilton9248248
Lucas5035319
Montgomery409280
Summit3338217
Marion289644
Butler274360
Mahoning2437253
Pickaway236542
Stark1713137
Warren166935
Lorain165077
Columbiana158360
Trumbull1451105
Fairfield126427
Delaware121918
Licking115844
Clark109214
Lake105436
Wood95458
Clermont85911
Medina84833
Miami78137
Tuscarawas75614
Portage72460
Allen66742
Greene63511
Belmont59026
Richland54712
Ashtabula54445
Erie53527
Geauga53544
Mercer53513
Wayne50858
Ross4194
Huron3784
Ottawa36125
Athens3501
Sandusky34317
Darke34126
Madison33610
Hancock3332
Holmes3226
Auglaize2265
Lawrence2250
Union2221
Jefferson2103
Muskingum1991
Scioto1991
Putnam19817
Washington19822
Coshocton1856
Knox1857
Preble1722
Crawford1685
Seneca1673
Shelby1644
Morrow1602
Clinton1536
Hardin15312
Champaign1502
Fulton1411
Highland1361
Ashland1333
Defiance1324
Logan1302
Wyandot1257
Williams1243
Brown1181
Guernsey1127
Hocking1119
Carroll1105
Perry1093
Henry1081
Fayette1020
Monroe9118
Pike700
Van Wert701
Jackson680
Paulding620
Gallia581
Adams562
Vinton302
Meigs260
Harrison211
Morgan200
Noble160
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Scattered Clouds
75° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 75°
Angola
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 72°
Huntington
Overcast
70° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 70°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
71° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 71°
Van Wert
Broken Clouds
70° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 70°
Warmer Thursday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events