As even CNN and MSNBC gave the devil – i.e., Donald Trump – his due for excellent political theater by allowing cameras to roll for almost an hour through his immigration meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday, a prominent theme in the proceedings pushed aggressively by the President on a once-highly controversial issue went largely overlooked.
Yes, the White House made a clever move, attempting to show Trump commanding the room in order to offset the perception advanced in the dime-store-novel-cum-expose Fire and Fury that Trump is essentially clueless, reckless, and utterly unfit to hold the highest office in the land. But consider that in the midst of this mini-reality show, Trump touched a political third rail, or at least a power socket, when he repeatedly said that a solution for the toxic political environment enveloping the nation was something voters have said they vehemently oppose: earmarks.
This decades-long process in which government funds were set aside, earmarked, for specific recipients was thought – if not proven – to be a certain source of corruption in both parties. Voters had a growing sense that this represented the self-enriching good ol’ boy network cutting deals and directing taxpayer money to their cronies.
The poster child for earmark abuse was the infamous $200 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, which sparked widespread voter outrage in 2008. So when the Republicans won control of the House in 2010 on a reform agenda, they abolished earmarks.
But what was thought to be a big victory for reformers in general and anti-corruption crusaders in particular – along with the American people – has been followed by eight years of bitter partisan gridlock unlike any we have witnessed in decades. Are the end of earmarks and this subsequent era of toxic partisanship related?
Well, we know what was gained in the abolition of earmarks: the appearance of higher congressional transparency and propriety. But what was lost that President Trump believes can be regained by reinstituting a process that had become so discredited? It is the ability of leaders in both chambers to persuade wavering colleagues to support legislation by offering them something appealing to their constituencies. Back in the day, many a bill was passed by trading valuable perks to individual members of Congress who could then brag to voters about how much federal funding they delivered to their districts.
Earmarks soothed the savage beast and provided the answer to the universal question: what’s in it for me? They were, quite simply, at the heart of how business had always been conducted in Washington – until 2010. Examples are far too numerous to count:
One of probably thousands of examples over the years: Jim Jaffe, who was a longtime aide to the legendary House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, recalls how President Ronald Reagan got another Chicago Democrat to vote for aid to the Nicaraguan Contras by promising money to extend the city’s subway system into his district.
Earmarks always represented a minuscule portion of massive federal budgets, but in a business where perception is reality, and given this age of instant access to a world of information, lawmakers might well believe pork barrel dollars are not valuable enough to justify the public scorn they are likely to receive in return.
In throwing the issue out on the table in his signature stream-of-consciousness fashion, Trump invoked gauzy images of political opponents – such as Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill – enjoying an adult beverage or dinner after work as they (likely) were cutting deals. But that was long ago and far away. Times have, to say the least, changed.
Has the barn door closed on this issue? Will citizens who register near single-digit approval numbers for Congress be receptive to an argument for a back-to-the-future return to earmarks? Probably not, especially in an election year when neither party wants to poke the bear known as the voters. And it would seem unlikely in the foreseeable future.
But the issue raised by the President is worthy of scrutiny – if not consideration – in an environment where the two parties can hardly agree on whether the sun rises in the east.
In the end, it comes down to whether you prefer a legislative body untainted by one perceived form of corruption, or one that can cut deals – however ugly they may appear – and advance the ball further down the field.