Marc Short, President Trump’s chief emissary to Congress, does not sound like he wants to renew earmarks, those narrowly crafted provisions that a single lawmaker used to slip into legislation. After all, nearly a decade ago, Short worked as a senior aide when House Republicans declared that any positive effect that earmarks had in helping pass broad legislative proposals was far outweighed by their corrupting nature.
“I think that there’s plenty of sound arguments that say it also did help create a swamp condition here and that people were incented to vote for bills for the wrong reason,” Short told CNN”s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday evening.
That exchange undercut the momentum that burst open about six hours earlier when Short’s boss raised the idea of reinstating the practice — hailing the political grease that might heal the squeaky wheel that Congress has become.
“I hear so much about earmarks, the old earmark system, how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said during Tuesday’s extraordinary 55-minute open-door meeting with a bipartisan collection of lawmakers.
Despite Trump’s praise, don’t count on congressional Republicans to suddenly reverse course and embrace earmarks.
This back-and-forth punctuated the difficulty of trying to negotiate with Trump, whose own personal background is as a wheeling-dealing developer who knows that sometimes an impasse can be overcome by a bit more cash applied in the right place. Yet, to win in his new industry, politics, Trump has adopted the Republican Party and surrounded himself with many traditional conservatives both among his senior staff and cabinet.
Moreover, the president’s allies on Capitol Hill are more traditional conservatives who don’t just want a deal, whatever the deal may be.
That tension became crystal clear in Trump’s exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on whether to pass a simple, “clean” bill to give immediate legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Once Trump seemed to signal he might support such an idea, to then tackle broader immigration and border security issues later, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) jumped in to remind Trump what the GOP’s position was: such a deal, for so-called Dreamers, had to be accompanied by a massive infusion of border security and other immigration law changes.
But Trump’s remarks on earmarks are more illustrative of how much his first instincts, particularly on issues that are new to him, are nonideological and toward crafting a deal. And Short’s response demonstrated how, when Trump seems to blurt something out that wasn’t really on the agenda, it should be taken with a grain of salt until other senior Trump advisers and congressional Republicans have weighed in.
“I think the president is putting the discussion on the table. He’s not really weighing in one way or the other at this point,” Short told Blitzer, regarding earmarks.
It was a remarkable undercutting of the president’s position, measured against past administrations, but taken for granted in the Trump era. Short told Blitzer that Trump was merely voicing the “frustration the American people have that right now” in watching Congress end in gridlock and that Trump has heard from people that earmarks “provided grease to get bills done.”
Blitzer gave a brief history of how the earmark practice had been linked to numerous scandalous projects that seemed meritless, projects that were just benefiting the lobbyists pushing them and lawmakers getting campaign donations from the lobbyists. Short smiled, happy to hear Blitzer embracing his view on earmarks.
“Wolf, it’s so good to hear you present it that way because yes, that has been a concern, ” he said.
It was not a complete dismissal of Trump’s position, but Short clearly wanted Blitzer and the world to know that the president’s words on this issue were just, well, not to be taken literally. And yet, in the bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, Trump didn’t just make his earmark position in a quick aside. He devoted 2 full minutes to the issue, not just praising these narrow projects as beneficial to passing legislation but also to creating an esprit de corps among lawmakers in the past.
“They went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills. That was an earmark system. And maybe we should think about it,” Trump said.
Ultimately, the earmark issue will be resolved by members of Congress. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has allowed the Rules Committee to schedule a few hearings on the issue, as it has bubbled up periodically among members of his caucus who want to be able to demonstrate to their constituents that they have something to show for their work in Washington.
It’s hard to envision Republicans reversing themselves on this issue. A decade ago, deep in the minority, House Republicans seized on the issue as the example of political corruption and pointed at key lieutenants of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as creatures of the swamp.
Their position also became a political necessity, an attempt at absolution, for the way they had allowed the earmark practice to run rampant during the 12-year reign of House Republicans. A couple members of their own ranks went to federal prison, a slew of former staffers who became lobbyists pleaded guilty and K Street king Jack Abramoff had not one but two movies made about his corruption ring.
Still, it was not easy for House Republicans to call for a ban on earmarks, and by 2008 Mike Pence, in his eighth year in the House, still requested a couple earmarks of his own. By 2009 the future vice president was a member of the GOP leadership, as chairman of the House Republican Conference, then the No. 3 post.
He joined the push, led by John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), to get the conference to vote that they would ban the practice if they captured the majority in the 2010 midterms.
“Republicans did something very dramatic today that’s going to make it very uncomfortable for business as usual,” Pence told Fox News in March 2010, the day that Republicans approved the proposal. “So now House Republicans are going to the American people and saying we want a clean break from the runaway spending in the past.”
Pence’s top staffer, at the time, was Marc Short.