The Daily 202: Trump’s Embrace Of Earmarks Underscores The Peril Of A President Who Doesn’t Know History


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Drawing cheers from the swamp he promised to drain, Donald Trump wholeheartedly embraced earmarks Tuesday as a lubricant to grease the gears of government.

During a televised meeting at the White House, the neophyte president riffed for two minutes about how bringing back pork-barrel spending would lead to more bipartisan cooperation.

"Our system lends itself to not getting things done, and I hear so much about earmarks - the old earmark system - how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks," he said. "In the old days of earmarks . . . they went out to dinner at night and they all got along, and they passed bills. . . . A lot of the pros are saying that, if you want to get along and if you want to get this country really rolling again, you have to look at [earmarks.]"

-- Here's the rub: The good old days weren't so good. Former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., literally had a "bribe menu" that told defense contractors exactly how much they could pay for him to deliver earmarks to their businesses. He left Congress in 2005 and spent seven years in prison for taking $2.4 million. That included a yacht named after him ("The Dukester") that was provided by a defense company president and docked at the waterfront near the Capitol. It doesn't include the prostitutes that were also made available to him.

Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? In 2005, Congress earmarked $223 million to link the remote Alaska town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the even more remote island of Gravina (population 50!).

There were smaller, but just as memorable, abuses: Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., got half a million bucks for a teapot museum in a town of 18,000. (It shuttered when the federal money dried up.)

-- Scandalous spending led to reform: Nancy Pelosi imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks when she became speaker in 2007. Then John Boehner banned earmarks altogether when Republicans took control of the House in 2011.

-- Trump nodded to the abuses Tuesday, but he downplayed them. "We have to put better controls because it got a little bit out of hand, but maybe that brings people together," he told lawmakers who had gathered to talk about immigration.

-- Conservative groups are aghast:

Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham said it is "nearly unthinkable" that Trump "would consider reinstating one of the most egregious examples of cronyism on Capitol Hill."

"If Republicans bring back earmarks, then it virtually guarantees that they will lose the House," said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana. "Bringing back earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp."

"The claim that earmarks are necessary to help pass bills has been debunked by the passage in the House of all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2018," said Citizens Against Government Waste president Tom Schatz. "It was not necessary to resort to the prior practice of 'legalized bribery' under which a few million dollars in earmarks were traded for votes in favor of hundreds of billions of dollars in spending bills."

-- They probably shouldn't be surprised. As a candidate, Trump routinely bragged about getting special favors from politicians who he gave money to as a developer. At heart, he is a dealmaker - not an ideologue. There is nothing to suggest that he genuinely cares about reining in government spending. He's called himself the king of debt. He signed a tax bill that will blow up the nation's debt by at least $1 trillion. He's advocating an approach to infrastructure that looks an awful lot like the 2009 stimulus package that helped spark the tea party movement.

-- The bigger story, though, might be that Trump just doesn't know very much about the history of abuse and how much earmarks besmirched the legislative process. As the first president in American history with no prior governing or military experience, sometimes it seems like his view of how Washington works comes from watching "The West Wing." (Like "The Apprentice," it aired on NBC.) Trump has an idealized vision of the past because he didn't have to live through the dark heyday of Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, Jack Murtha and Ted Stevens.

He's repeatedly demonstrated naivete about basic issues that have vexed Washington. "Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated," he said last February.

Trump thought he could convince China to pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear activities - until Xi Jinping tutored him on the history of the region. "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it's not so easy," the president said in April.

-- Trump has made clear that he doesn't know elementary-level history. The president made puzzling comments about Andrew Jackson's views on the Civil War, which broke out 16 years after he died. "People don't ask that question," he said last May, "but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"

He said at a black history month event last February that Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, is "someone who has done a terrific job that is being recognized by more and more people."

"Most people don't even know [Abraham Lincoln] was a Republican," Trump said at a fundraiser last March. "Does anyone know? Lot of people don't know that."

Discussing his trip to Paris last July, the president said that "Napoleon finished a little bad" and made this puzzling declaration: "His one problem is he didn't go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death."

-- In many ways, Trump is taking America on a vacation from history. His "America First" campaign slogan is literally the same one that isolationists used during the 1930s to justify inaction in the face of a rising tide of fascism.

-- But it's bigger than one president. One of America's biggest challenges in the 21st century is its lack of historical memory. After the carnage of the both world wars, the Greatest Generation came to understand that great power requires great responsibility. But as time passed, a new generation either never learned that lesson or forgot it. (Woodrow Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points speech to a joint session of Congress 100 years ago this week. How many kids these days could name any of them?)

-- The Trump administration is counting on the country having a short attention span as it works to systematically deconstruct the administrative state. Not even a decade after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Trump is working with Wall Street bankers (some of whom work in the White House) to undo provisions in Dodd-Frank that were designed to prevent another one. When people weren't paying attention over Christmas, the administration moved to weaken new rules that a bipartisan commission came up with to prevent another Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Trickle-down economics has not panned out, and Sam Brownback's experiment in Kansas failed cataclysmically, yet the new tax law assumes this time will somehow be different. The list goes on and on.

-- Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

-- It's not clear that the first family even thinks history matters. A senior European diplomat complained to Politico last week that Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law who had been given an expansive international portfolio that includes shepherding Middle East peace talks, has been "very dismissive" about the role of international institutions and alliances. The diplomat said that Kushner has also been uninterested in hearing Europeans recount how closely the United States has partnered with Western Europe since World War II. "He told me, 'I'm a businessman, and I don't care about the past. Old allies can be enemies, or enemies can be friends.' So, the past doesn't count," the diplomat told Susan Glasser. "I was taken aback. It was frightening."

-- That mentality has manifested itself in a myriad of ways over the past year. To wit:

Without an American security guarantee, the freedom-loving people of the Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - would almost certainly be gobbled up by the authoritarian Russians. These Eastern European countries were occupied by the Soviets until the end of the Cold War, and they've lived in fear of Russian invasions since Peter the Great. To guard against their annexation, they were invited to join NATO in 2004.

In a chilling story that posted overnight, two former administration officials tell the Daily Beast that a senior National Security Council official proposed withdrawing some U.S. military forces from Eastern Europe as an overture to Vladimir Putin during the early days of the Trump presidency. "While the proposal was ultimately not adopted, it is the first known case of senior aides to [Trump] seeking to reposition U.S. military forces to please Putin -something that smelled, to a colleague, like a return on Russia's election-time investment," Spencer Ackerman reports.

Kevin Harrington, who pushed the idea, remains the NSC's senior official for strategic planning. He came to the White House with neither military experience nor significant government experience. He got the job because he worked for Trump donor Peter Thiel's hedge fund. "The ex-colleague considered the idea dangerously nave," Ackerman reports. "A second former senior Trump administration official [said] that Harrington had enthusiastically discussed this proposal with several senior staffers. . ."

-- Trump's comments have already given a shot in the arm to a long-dormant effort by entrenched incumbents to revive earmarks.

The House Rules Committee announced Tuesday night that it will hold two hearings next week on ending the moratorium. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the committee's chairman, said he thinks it can be done in a "transparent and meritorious" way. One idea he's floating is limiting earmarks only to state or local governments or to certain agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers.

-- Killing earmarks was one of Jeff Flake's proudest achievements in Congress. He played a leading role. But under the spell of Trumpism, the outgoing Arizona senator recognizes that his brand of principled conservatism is falling out of favor in the Republican Party.

-- To be sure, there are a lot of politicians in both parties who think earmarks are wonderful.

Jonathan Rauch argued for bringing them back in a 2014 essay for The Atlantic called "The Case for Corruption": "By the time Congress banned earmarks, they were transparent (publicly disclosed) and inexpensive (a rounding error in the federal budget). With them went probably the last remnant of honest graft. No longer could the speaker tell a recalcitrant House member, 'If I don't get your vote for the budget compromise, you can say goodbye to that new irrigation project in your district.' . . . We obviously shouldn't go back to the Tammany ways, even if that were possible. Still, one can also have too little of a bad thing, and the overshoot against honest graft is an example."

-- The subject divides Democrats, as well. Harry Reid publicly broke with Barack Obama on getting rid of earmarks in 2011. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, embraced Trump's call for the return of earmarks Tuesday night.

Hawaii's senior senator framed it as restoring the constitutional prerogative of the legislative branch:

Brian Schatz tweeted "Earmarks make sense because the legislative branch holds the constitutional authority to determine how money is spent. Don't @ me."

But Missouri's senior senator, a former state auditor who is up for reelection this year, has long been anti-earmark:

Claire McCaskill tweeted "Huh? The President just embraced earmarks? Talk about the swampiest of swamp creatures. You gotta be kidding me."

A former senior adviser to Obama thinks Trump has just handed Democrats another winning issue in 2018:

Dan Pfeiffer tweeted "Democrats should run against a return to earmarks in 2018" and "Earmarks without campaign finance reform is a recipe for disaster"


With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.


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Source : http://www.readingeagle.com/ap/article/the-daily-202-trumps-embrace-of-earmarks-underscores-the-peril-of-a-president-who-doesnt-know-history

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