In a strange televised bipartisan discussion yesterday that was apparently designed to rebut reports that the president is adrift in swirling seas without a compass or a paddle, Trump earned mixed reviews for his handling of sensitive immigration policy disputes. But for Republicans and particularly the hard-core conservative Republicans who mostly idolize him these days, there was one especially awkward moment when the author of The Art of the Deal waxed nostalgic about the good old days when bipartisanship could be encouraged by the political wealth-sharing device of congressional earmarks. Fox News reported the incident with ill-concealed horror:
“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,” the president said during a White House meeting on immigration attended by multiple lawmakers.
Earmarks would use taxpayer’s money to fund projects in lawmakers’ districts without the need for the competitive process as required for other federal spending.
The practice was banned in 2011 by House Republicans, who said at the time that it corrupts lawmakers and encourages them to support bad legislation just so they could add earmarks and fund projects back at home.
Indeed: for the tea-party movement, earmarks became one of the most popular explanations for how conservatives came to Washington determined to clean up and shrink Big Government, and instead became ensnared in efforts to win reelection by bringing home the bacon. These little political credit trophies were central to what candidate Trump called the Swamp during his 2016 campaign.
Now anybody paying close attention to Washington in the Trump era — with its rampant lobbyists capturing the regulatory structure and rewriting the tax code, augmented by a heavy corporate presence in the administration — will hardly be surprised to discover that the president likes earmarks, too. He clearly thinks Democrats can be lured into cooperating with his agenda if they can share in the big barbecue of associated programs and projects. But his open, public embrace is a real scandal for the ideological commissars of the right.
Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham said it is “nearly unthinkable” that Trump “would consider reinstating one of the most egregious examples of cronyism on Capitol Hill.”
“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” said Club for Growth president David McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana. “Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp.”
Trouble is, Trump’s warm praise for earmarks arose just as the traditional guardians of the Swamp, congressional appropriators, are making an effort to bring back the practice.
Trump’s two-minute tribute to earmarks gave a boost to a group of Republicans, mainly appropriators who are charged with writing spending bills, who have been lobbying [Speaker Paul] Ryan and other GOP leaders for their restoration — albeit in limited form — for more than a year …
After the appropriators pushed for a change to party rules in late 2016, Ryan prevailed on them to withdraw the effort, arguing it would be unwise for Republicans to bring back earmarks immediately after a “drain the swamp” election. Instead, he promised the issue would be studied and considered at a later date.
Thanks to Trump, the “later date” could arrive much sooner. Sometimes it’s useful to have a party leader who feels no compunction to maintain consistency, or doesn’t understand the realities behind his slogans from the get-go.