The House Republican Conference vote on Wednesday to restore earmarks was a betrayal of the voters, and undermined one of the remaining legacies of the Tea Party.
The vote was close, 102-84, but that is no consolation, especially as it was by secret ballot, preventing voters from holding their representatives accountable.
If Republicans do not hold a revote, they can expect conservatives to stay home in 2022. They will have blown their chance to retake the House — and will deserve to lose.
Earmarks are, or were, spending provisions that Senators and Representatives attach to bills that are likely to pass and be signed into law. The Congressional Research Service defines them as a benefit to “a specific entity or state, locality, or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process.” They allow members of Congress to shower “pork” projects on their districts — or to reward favored donors and special interests.
The typical argument for earmarks is that they can help to relieve partisan gridlock. A politician might agree to break ranks with his or her party if there is something in it for the folks back home (or the campaign coffers).
That was why President Donald Trump suggested bringing back earmarks in 2018 — albeit with ” better controls” than in the past– as a way to break through Democratic “resistance” on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, where there was potential for cooperation.
But if that argument made sense when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House, it makes no sense for Republicans when they are in the minority. Earmarks are a tool for Democrats to break the unity of the opposition by bribing the few votes they need to provide “bipartisan” cover for left-wing legislation. While impatient Republicans may want to show their constituents they can achieve something in the minority, they would undermine the opposition as a whole.
Earmarks are also wasteful. No, they are not a significant contributor to the budget deficit or the debt; they are merely a drop in the sea of red ink. But they often pour money into dead-end initiatives or vanity projects. The main beneficiaries are the K Street firms, who can charge exorbitant fees to clients to make sure a particular project is funded.
Bringing back earmarks means bringing back the market for pork in Washington. Instead of “draining the swamp,” Republicans would be flooding it.
The late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) hated earmarks, and made them an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) originally defended earmarks, saying, “Pork is in the eye of the beholder.”
That was how business was done in Chicago; his political adviser, David Axelrod, even wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune defending the practice of greasing political palms with public money. Trading money and favors, he said, made government a “well-oiled machine.”
The Tea Party hated earmarks. And though he clashed with the party base, House Republican leader John Boehner, who had never taken an earmark himself, ended the practice shortly after the 2010 election.
“Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people,” the Speaker-of-the-House-to-be said in a statement. “This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington.”
When Democrats signaled in December that they would re-introduce earmarks, Republicans had an opportunity to show that they were the only party that was serious about ending waste and corruption.
Instead, they have joined the Democrats back at the trough. They broke the promise that Boehner made in 2010, which they honored for more than a decade — even when it might have helped Trump politically for them to change their minds.
Why should conservative voters ever trust them again?