Good news for fiscal conservatives, although the more worried I get about presidential power increasing at Congress’s expense, the more willing I am to hear out the counterargument on earmarks. The fiscal reason to bar earmarks, obviously, is to reduce wasteful spending by limiting Congress’s power to shovel federal dollars at their pet projects back home. The counterargument, which gets less attention, is that the ban does little except to shift the waste and cronyism to the executive branch. Former Reps. Martin Frost and Tom Davis wrote about that last year:
[W]ithout earmarks, Congress delegates the authority to allocate vast sums of discretionary federal spending to the executive branch. The president submits a budget at the beginning of each year and then Congress decides how much money each department and agency will get for its programs. But then someone in the federal bureaucracy decides which communities and states actually get those dollars. Earmarks reclaim a portion of that power for Congress.
A recent Brookings Institution analysis of federal discretionary spending that was published by Reuters demonstrated how the executive branch influences this distribution: Blue states benefit during a Democratic administration, and red states during in a Republican administration. (Swing states get special attention from both.) And yet even as Republicans in Congress are suing President Obama for overreaching his constitutional authority on immigration and healthcare, Congress has ceded its own authority over how federal dollars are spent by continuing the earmark ban. Go figure.
Do you want President Trump doling out federal goodies, increasing what’s sure to be his already considerable influence over the direction of government, or do you want Congress to retain some control over this tiny share of the federal budget? If you’re a conservative, maybe you trust the Republican House on spending priorities more than you trust the former Democrat in the White House who’s staring at massive conflicts of interest between his public service and his private interests. But then, if you’re a conservative, maybe you agree with Tom Coburn that Congress has no constitutional authority to earmark funds and that giving it the power to do so will only lead to extra spending, not more responsible spending than the executive branch would have managed. Besides, having a single executive ultimately in charge of how money gets spent probably means more accountability on balance than you get with 535 legislators sticking their pork requests piecemeal into a gigantic bill.
Either way, it’s academic. There’ll be no new earmarks, or at least no new earmarks right now, by order of the Speaker himself:
“After a long debate, it was clear there’s a lot of pent up frustration with ceding spending authority to the Executive Branch,” said one source in the room. “Based on the comments by members, it was likely that an earmark amendment would have passed. Ultimately, the speaker stepped in and urged that we not make this decision today.”
“[Ryan] said we just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election and cannot turn right around and bring back earmarks behind closed doors,” the source continued…
The provision would allow lawmakers to direct specific funds to some federal agencies — such as the Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Reclamation — and state and local governments. It would continue to ban Congress from earmarking federal cash for recreational facilities, museums or parks.
The conflict here between limiting spending and restoring congressional authority over it might not have been as sharp for Ryan as it was for other members of the caucus. Per Politico, Trump’s surprise victory actually may have saved his job as Speaker. (A globalist victory!) Allegedly Jim Jordan of the Freedom Caucus was planning to challenge Ryan after the election if Trump lost. Republicans were angry at Ryan for declaring after the “Access Hollywood” dropped that he wouldn’t campaign with Trump anymore, and Jordan’s candidacy would have given them a vehicle to express that. (Never mind that Jordan himself was sharply critical of Trump over the tape.) If a few dozen members decided to vote for Jordan instead of Ryan, Ryan might have concluded that he couldn’t get to 218 votes in the House Speaker election in January and stepped aside. Rumors were flying about a challenge to Ryan even before the election; the populist base would have needed a “scalp,” as Mick Mulvaney explained to Politico, to ease their pain after Trump’s defeat and Ryan was the obvious target. Once Trump won, though, and Ryan positioned himself at the head of the victory parade, all of that changed. The populists were happy with their White House win and Trump, seemingly, was happy enough with Ryan. The rebellion was canceled. All of which is to say, blocking earmarks and keeping spending power in the president’s hands may be a small gift from Ryan to Trump, his new benefactor, as well as a small measure of fiscal restraint. It’s the least Ryan can do, no?
Said Raul Labrador after today’s Republican conference meeting:
“I have a policy of not speaking about what happens in conference because I believe that is the one place we can air our differences and be honest with each other about what we believe,” Labrador told POLITICO when asked about his comment. But he added, “The message from leadership has taken a complete 180: First they were against Trump, and now they’re going to do whatever Trump tells them to do.”
Oh well. Look on the bright side. If you think Republicans have headaches right now, Democrats appear ready to hand Nancy Pelosi another thousand-year term as her party’s leader in the House. After all the electoral success Dems have had since her big ObamaCare victory in 2010, who can blame them?