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Hill Republicans weigh putting pork back on the table

by Jonathan Allen /
Image: President Donald Trump meets with bipartisan members of the Senate on immigration
President Donald Trump meets with bipartisan members of the Senate on immigration at the White House in Washington on Jan. 9, 2018.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — Some top Republicans in Washington — including President Donald Trump — think they've found a cure for dysfunction in the Capitol: Put pork back on the congressional menu.

The controversial home-district pet projects tucked into larger bills — also known as "earmarks" or "congressionally directed spending" — were essentially banned after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections. They've been politically toxic ever since, a symbol of the worst of the Washington swamp that Trump railed against during his campaign.

But there was Trump on Tuesday, giving them a shout-out at an unrelated White House meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

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"Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks," he told lawmakers who had gathered at the White House to negotiate immigration policy. "We have to put better controls because it got a little out of hand, but that brings people together."

His remarks came as some Republican lawmakers have become more comfortable pushing publicly for a reinstatement of earmarking power and as the House Rules Committee plans to hold hearings this month on whether a new system for those set-asides should be devised.

It's all aimed at using a little bit of the federal purse to help buy congressional goodwill for some tough-to-pass laws.

Many Republicans believe Congress has struggled to keep the government operating in recent years because it's much easier for lawmakers to vote against big spending bills if some of that money isn't specifically set aside for projects in their own districts.

"The more people have skin in the game, the better off we are," Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said in an interview with NBC News.

Critics agree that earmarks give leverage to party leaders as they try to collect votes. They just think that's a bad thing — and that Republicans will be punished by voters if they go back on promises to clean up the way Washington does business.

"I get that they’re frustrated that they don’t have the leverage to force people to vote the way they want them to," said Wesley Denton, communications director for the Conservative Partnership Institute. "The problem is that’s a surefire way to lose the American people and your credibility with them after an election calling to 'drain the swamp.'"

Denton added that "it would be a great idea" for Republican leaders to reinstitute an earmark system "if they want to bring back corruption and waste and fraud and members' going back to jail."

In 2006, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison after he pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for steering work their way. Cunningham's activities, which included keeping a bribe menu of prices for favors, brought added scrutiny to the power individual lawmakers could exercise over government spending decisions.

His case also played out against the backdrop of a political battle over the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," a proposed span connecting tiny Gravina Island to Ketchikan, Alaska, that won hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from Alaska lawmakers in a transportation bill.

Though few would defend the bridge — or a bribe menu for earmarks — lawmakers who support pork-barrel spending note that the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. In recent years, they say, that authority has been ceded to the White House and executive-branch agencies in violation of the spirit of the Constitution's separation of powers. Moreover, they say, lawmakers, not unelected agency officials, should be in control of how money is apportioned to projects in their districts.

Under the old system, party leaders and committee chairmen would apportion available earmark money among rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties. The rank-and-file members would largely choose which entities in their districts — hospitals, schools, children's museums and defense contractors among them — would receive funding. Many of those entities hired lobbyists or made campaign contributions to lawmakers.

For party leaders, it represented a system of carrots and sticks — home-district money that could be given or taken away — to lure votes for larger bills.

"There will be people who say that helps things move around this place," said Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican who opposes earmarks. "But when you're moving toward $21 trillion in debt, the movement has to be in the right direction, and we're not currently moving in the right direction."

But asked how his colleagues come down on the question, Brat paused.

"Split," he said.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who postponed a planned vote on bringing back earmarks after the 2016 election, tried to play down the possibility of earmarks making a comeback.

"Conversations are having a comeback," he told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol. "We have 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."

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