President Trump’s frustration with congressional gridlock led him to make a bold suggestion last week: bring back congressional earmarks. But while the notion that earmarks help grease the lawmaking process is not without merit, Congress should not return to the corrupt free-for-all we banned in 2010.

The end of earmarks is when it became difficult to pass a federal budget without threatening to shut down the government. In 2010 Republicans, including me, ended the practice of congressional earmarking – in which individual members would agree to take a tough vote in exchange for getting a big spending project in their home district. By passing out the candy, leadership was able to shore up faltering support and build bipartisan coalitions. 

Since 2010, that candy jar has been empty. The upcoming budget vote to avert a government shutdown Friday night will have no such incentives to attract support. Without the ability to promise federal dollars to be spent in the home district, members of Congress are less willing to take the heat for controversial votes on critical legislation like health care, tax reform and spending.

Congress has lost that spoonful of sugar that made the tough legislation go down. While a legitimate argument can be made that Congress – and not the executive branch – should direct spending, the earmarking process had become ripe with abuse.

If we move forward to reinstate earmarks, we must not return to the murky world in which committee chairmen designated almost half of all earmark spending to their own districts and wasteful projects were rarely debated or vetted.

Here’s how it worked: When a tough vote was looming, leadership would routinely ask members what they wanted in exchange for their vote. In other words, what pet project would it take to get you to vote yes on a bill you don’t fully support? Need a road?  Want to expand the military base in your district?  Vote aye and earmarked funding for your pet project is available.

Senators were notorious for using earmarks to fund their favorite pet projects in their home states, including bridges, parking lots and buildings named after themselves. House members got airports, roads, and even a farmer’s market they expected taxpayers in other states to fund. 

Earmarks also included commitments by the federal government to buy unneeded equipment, supplies, weapons, or even ships that were manufactured in a member’s home district. Leadership on both sides of the aisle greased the system with earmarks to get bills passed and to give members an accomplishment to brag about back home.

Earmarks also facilitated bipartisan support. Regardless of who held the majority, votes from the minority party could be extracted with a promise of earmarked spending to take home. Why are there not more bipartisan bills today? Because this candy has been taken away.

With the candy went the prime tool that leaders in the House and Senate used to get tough legislation to the president’s desk.

If we move forward to reinstate earmarks, we must not return to the murky world in which committee chairmen designated almost half of all earmark spending to their own districts and wasteful projects were rarely debated or vetted.

In 2010 – the last year earmarks were permitted – members of Congress sought earmarks for 39,000 projects totaling $130 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The two Republican senators representing my home state of Utah did well that year – with Sen. Orrin Hatch seeking 256 earmarks valued at $1.2 billion. Sen. Bob Bennett submitted 321 earmarks worth $1.36 billion. This was multiplied in each state.

Obviously, some requests were legitimate, but without meaningful transparency and debate, abuses were easy to hide. There term “bridge to nowhere” came to describe wasteful or unnecessary projects exposed by outside groups. These projects showed up on the evening news and were mocked by late-night comedians.

Congress eventually grew tired of embarrassing itself, a new wave of Republicans were swept into office, and the practice was rightly ended.

The abolishment of congressional earmarking was intended to drive down spending. Unfortunately, spending continues to grow and now the federal bureaucracy has even more say in where and how your money is spent.

Behind the scenes members of Congress make a valid argument that Congress has the legitimate constitutional responsibility to direct spending. They’re not wrong. But if they really want to resurrect this practice, they’re going to need to do a much better job policing abuse.

A failed attempt to restore limited earmarking at the start of this 115th Congress was rejected after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., argued the optics were terrible. But as each new attempt to pass legislation ends in failure, the temptation to reinstate earmarking grows.

Perhaps there is a better, more transparent way to allow Congress to have more input as to how appropriated money is best spent. The conversation is worth having. But much greater transparency and debate should be required.

President Trump is right about one thing: Congress will work and more bills will be passed – as long as there is candy to be passed out.

Jason Chaffetz currently serves as a contributor for both FOX News Channel (FNC) and FOX Business Network (FBN.) He is based in Utah and joined the network in July 2017 after resigning from his position in Congress after nine years.

Source: FoxNews

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