WASHINGTON - Nearly a year after President Trump was sworn into office on a campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” he now wants Congress to reopen the spending spigots again.
Last week, speaking before television cameras at a White House meeting with House and Senate lawmakers, Trump said he wants Congress to bring back the corrupt, under-the-table, spending practices called earmarks, once one of the most notoriously wasteful spending schemes on Capitol Hill.
“You know, our system lends itself to not getting things done,” the president said. “And I hear so much about earmarks, the old system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”
Trump didn’t have to explain how earmarks worked, because every lawmaker in the room, at least most of them, had used the process to grease through money bills for their state or district that financially benefited rich, powerful special interests back home.
“In the old days of earmarks… they went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was the earmark system. And maybe we should think about it,” he added. He was talking about restoring earmarks.”
“A lot of the pros are saying that if you want to get along, and if you want to get this country really rolling again, you have to look at [earmarks],” Trump said.
What Trump didn’t say is that the practice was very often crooked to the core, whereby funds were secretly inserted into a large appropriation bill for a lawmaker to finance a pork barrel project back home in exchange for campaign donations or other political favors.
But Washington Post analyst James Hohmann wrote last week that those “good old days weren’t so good. Former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) literally had a “bribe menu” that told defense contractors exactly how much they could pay for him to deliver earmarks to their businesses. He left Congress in 2005 and spent seven years in prison for taking $2.4 million.”
Then there was the “Bridge To Nowhere” earmark that then-Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma condemned in his “10 Most Outrageous Government Boondoggles I Ever Saw.”
The “notorious 2005 earmark authorized $452 million to build two bridges in Alaska — including one that became known as the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, which would have connected the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, home to only a few dozen people,” Coburn wrote.
Like Coburn, a fierce opponent of wasteful spending, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, compiled his own list of “the 10 worst earmarks” on Twitter. Among them:
$1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa; $1 million for mormon cricket control in Utah; $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York; $332,000 for the design and construction of a school sidewalk in Franklin, Texas; $300,000 for the Montana World Trade Center; $200,000 for “tattoo removal violence outreach program to help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past”; and $475,000 to build a parking garage in Provo City, Utah.
This is only a fragment of the many earmark spending abuses that were part and parcel of what lawmakers were doing with our tax dollars.
It got so bad that even then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a liberal big spender if ever there was one — imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks in 2007, but then later resumed them under new rules restricting their use.
But when the Republicans won control of the House, Speaker John Boehner pushed through tougher spending rules that abolished earmarks entirely in 2011.
There were attempts early last year to bring them back, but House Speaker Paul Ryan stopped that cold.
“We just had a ‘drain the swamp' election,” Ryan lectured his party. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.”
It was a message that was lustily cheered throughout the GOP’s conservative base who sharply criticized Trump’s attempt to revive big spending earmarks.
“Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp,” said Club for Growth President David Mcintosh. “Earmarks will only benefit the special interests that grow government at the expense of working men and women.”
“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House” in this year’s midterm elections, he predicted.
As for Trump’s plea that Congress should return to the old days of packing appropriation bills with costly, vote-buying pork, someone in the White House needs to set him straight. Those earmark days are over.