When Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart found out that President Donald Trump had endorsed earmarks on national television, the 15-year House veteran fist-pumped into the air.
“Am I smiling when I’m not supposed to?” the Florida Republican told reporters, chuckling.
In a week consumed by infighting over immigration, it was Trump’s unexpected affirmation of pork-barrel spending that had Washington spinning.
Trump’s improvised tribute to earmarks Tuesday lasted just two minutes after an unrelated White House meeting, but the political effects could be far-reaching as Congress mulls whether to allow a revival.
Trump reminisced in seeming familiarity with Congress that in the old days, lawmakers of both parties “went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills” — a vastly different portrait from today’s gridlock. Earmarks, he suggested, could “get this country really rolling again.”
The chances of ending the 2011 ban are dim in a midterm election year with the GOP’s congressional majorities at stake. But some lawmakers have hope now that a key GOP committee is planning its first set of hearings on the issue in years. And House GOP leaders recently moved to restart a debate on earmarks that has been put on hold since fall 2016 in the wake of Trump’s “drain the swamp” electoral victory.
Trump’s latest taboo-busting position pits him against years of GOP orthodoxy, vexing powerful conservatives who helped propel him to the presidency. Heritage Action called it “nearly unthinkable.”
“If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement Tuesday.
But the president also gave voice to a nostalgia that’s shared by many long-serving members of Congress, even if they don’t often say it out loud.
“Maybe they’ll breathe life into the whole idea. I’m all for earmarks,” said House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), whose panel would be ground zero for a revival of pet projects. Frelinghuysen has long argued that it’s better for lawmakers to submit requests through his committee, rather than air-dropping them into spending bills through eleventh-hour amendments.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, who has served since 1997, was happily surprised to hear Trump’s support, especially since it would empower Congress over executive agencies. “Usually the administration doesn’t promote that,” he said.
A longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, Aderholt said he could back a return to earmarks “as long as it’s done on a fair and transparent basis.” He said it’s better for elected representatives to dole out government cash, rather than “a group of bureaucrats a thousand miles away.”
“The misnomer about that is that it is a ‘swamp’ issue,” the Alabama Republican said. “You could make the argument that this is more getting rid of the swamp, holding people accountable.”
Republicans insist it wouldn’t be a return to Congress’ old habits. Instead, they argue, it could grease the skids for government projects now choked off by bureaucratic red tape. Speaker Paul Ryan specifically cited the Army Corps of Engineers, which he said has “not been up to snuff about getting its job done.”
“I want our members to have conversations,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Democrats reeled at Trump’s comments.
“He’s supposed to be a conservative, he’s a GOP president, and he’s talking openly about, ‘Let’s get them back,’” said Stan Collender, a longtime observer of the budget process and former Democratic budget staffer. “No Democrat would get away with this.”
Democrats are unlikely to back any push to bring back earmarks in an election year, though plenty of members, particularly appropriators, support it.
“I’m for earmarks, I’ve made that pretty clear publicly,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest-ranking House Democrat, told reporters Wednesday. He then rattled off a list of spending rules that have been tightened over the last decade.
“I believe it is the responsibility of the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for objects that it believes are in the best interests of their communities and their country,” Hoyer said, adding that he plans to testify at next week’s House Rules Committee hearing.
Line-item expenditures — also known as earmarks — were banned after a series of spending scandals that even led to jail time for one member.
Former GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham was sentenced in 2006 to eight years in prison for accepting millions of dollars in bribes from defense contractors.
Two years later, lawmakers came under fire for the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. The $200 million expenditure exploded onto the national stage with the help of the 2008 GOP presidential ticket, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Democrats launched reforms when they won control of both chambers in 2006, attempting to rein in funding for what were known as lawmakers’ “pet projects.” Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi instituted a one-year moratorium in 2007.
But the drastic action came in 2011, when Republicans decisively won back their House majority. (The push was led by then-Speaker John Boehner, who proudly refused earmarks throughout his 21-year span in Washington.)
Weeks after the election, GOP leaders vowed to ban earmarks entirely — one-upping their Democratic counterparts who had sought to ban earmarks only for projects that benefited private companies. Public and nonprofit-driven projects would still be allowed.
Both parties helped increase scrutiny of the appropriations process in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at the same time that Congress was financing more special projects through spending bills.
In 1994, there were fewer than 2,000 earmarks. By 2005, there were about 14,000, according to PolitiFact.
Congressional leaders doled out the spending perks to members for any number of reasons: to reward party loyalty, to secure support for unrelated bills or to simply keep the government open.
Members of the powerful House spending panel — who have witnessed the decline of “regular order” in appropriations over the last decade — are particularly keen to restore the practice.
With a perpetual shortage of votes for spending legislation, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that lawmakers once had a vested interest in those bills. Some have likened the 2011 ban to the Prohibition era, predicting that leadership will ultimately feel pressured to reverse course.
Now Trump has lent his support.
“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,” he said.
Jennifer Scholtes and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.