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Is it time to bring back ‘pork,’ or earmarks, as Trump suggests? Senate candidates already disagree over it

January 17, 2018

Is it time to bring back ‘pork,’ or earmarks, as Trump suggests? Senate candidates already disagree over it

WASHINGTON -- With President Donald Trump broaching the possibility of returning special-favor spending to Congress, an old debate is renewed. Should Congress members be able to pick priorities for their districts and then steer tax money to them?

Is it time to revive earmarks?

Mike Gibbons, a millionaire investment banker in Cleveland who’s running for U.S. Senate in a Republican primary, says no. He is casting his opinion with those of some of the Senate’s leading fiscal conservatives, including Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

They and other critics of earmarks say the practice, which Congress stopped in 2011 when John Boehner was House speaker, can unfairly reward special interests with favors from lawmakers. They say it can also lead to parochial decisions trumping the national interest and cause bloated federal spending.

But supporters of earmarks or “pork” -- in which members of Congress can bring home the bacon for their constituents -- say they help Congress prioritize. Earmarks give lawmakers a bigger say over how money is spent, and they know their districts’ needs best, this side goes. And earmarks create a form of currency for brokering deals.

It can sound crass, but supporters say with a return of earmarks, Washington leaders would be able to offer trades to a rank-and-file member in exchange for a vote on a matter they found important. When meeting with congressional leaders last week, Trump said earmarks could make it easier to get things done.

“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,” Trump said. “But of course, they had other problems with earmarks. But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

A full return to earmarks is unlikely. But some members, including Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, have indicated before that they might be willing to consider a much more limited system -- as long as it was in fact limited and transparent. There is no way, Renacci suggested through his congressional office, that he wants to go back to the old ways.

But at the same time, he says, the current system puts power and federal money for local and state needs in the hands of “un-elected bureaucrats.” That is equally concerning, he says.

This puts Renacci at odds with Gibbons. And now that Renacci has entered the Republican Senate primary as well, the issue sets up the first substantive challenge between the two.

Renacci’s record on earmarks:

Renacci only joined the Senate nominating race last week, after the GOP front-runner, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, dropped out, saying his wife and family needed him close to home because of an unspecified illness of his wife. Before then, Renacci was running for governor. Without Mandel, the Republican primary is far less settled. The winner of the primary race will run against Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

Renacci changes races, and so the Senate race changes, too

Renacci, a former Wadsworth mayor and businessman, is hardly a liberal supporter of earmarks. He entered Congress in 2011, too late to even consider trying to cut his own deal for pork-barrel spending. Besides, he has said his fiscal priorities include getting a balanced budget by cutting unnecessary spending. He wants restraint, he says, not excess.

In 2012, Heritage Action, an arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, counted him among the Republicans firmly in favor of keeping the earmark ban.

But other times, Renacci has allowed that an occasional earmark should not be ruled out.

In his first race for Congress, Renacci said at a 2010 primary debate that there were $17 billion in earmarks, and “you shouldn’t eliminate all of them, but you could eliminate or drastically reduce that.”

In his first year in office, Renacci and all other House Republicans voted against a Democratic measure to strip funding for the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. The money had originated with an earlier earmark for an Alaskan Republican lawmaker who wanted hundreds of millions in federal transportation money for a bridge in a sparsely populated area of the state. Without the bridge, residents in a remote Alaskan town could not reach the regional airport -- on an island -- unless they took a ferry.

The project ultimately died anyway, stopped by state officials because of the cost. But the House vote in which Renacci sided with colleagues to keep the earmark was largely an act of political symbolism -- with Democrats saying Republicans were hypocrites when they talked of fiscal discipline.

When Renacci ran for his third term in 2014, the Canton Repository praised his “interest in reviving earmarks that are properly vetted and publicized.”

Gibbons sees a problem:

Gibbons said this week that Renacci’s actions, statements and endorsements show he is on the wrong side of fiscal restraint.

“We need to drain the swamp in Washington, but bringing back earmarks would only make it worse,” Gibbons said in a statement. “Unlike my opponent who believes in earmarks and appeared okay with the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, when elected I will join Senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in opposing wasteful spending by keeping earmarks banned.”

Renacci suggested through his congressional spokeswoman the issue is a bit more complicated than that.

“Jim has always opposed the old, corrupt earmark system and continues to support the ban on that process,” said Kelsey Knight, Renacci’s communications director. “During his time in Washington, he has grown equally concerned about the misuse of taxpayer money by un-elected bureaucrats, who currently control the process. Moving forward he would welcome the development of a system that would instill both transparency and accountability into the process.”

In following the debate, it helps to know that part of the the House district Renacci represents used to be held by the late Ralph Regula. A Republican and senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Regula proudly used earmarks to bring money and federal projects to his district.

Ohio has seen, and liked, pork:

Regula used his committee seniority to secure large grants for medical and research institutions including Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University. He earmarked millions of dollars to fight zebra mussels invading the Great Lakes, and played a key role in creating the Ohio and Erie Canalway and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He also channeled funds toward clean coal research, and was a founder of the Congressional Steel Caucus.

Most Ohioans in Congress did something similar, though Regula’s senior role as an appropriator gave him extra sway and his projects grander scale.

The late Sen. George Voinovich and the late Rep. Steve LaTourette, both popular Republicans, delivered earmarks -- including, in Voinovoch’s case, $21 million for a new Coast Guard station in the Cleveland Harbor the year before earmarks were banned.

The late Rep. Lous Stokes, a powerful and senior Democrat, used to boast that he was able to make sure Cleveland was taken care of thanks to his earmarking skill. Earmarks have paid for Ohio transit hubs, hospital and university buildings and renovations, museum displays, roads, food banks and health clinics.

Count the Ohio earmarks in just one year

So what about Brown, the Democrat?

“Senator Brown will use every tool available to deliver results for Ohio -- from securing resources to combat opioids to rebuilding Ohio bridges,” said Jennifer Donohue, his communications director.

But the other Ohio U.S. senator, Rob Portman, a Republican, said he wants the ban to stay in place. Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, is leading the charge in the Senate this week with a bill for a permanent earmark ban, and Portman is on board.

Earmarks tended to be offered in secrecy amid last-minute negotiations to win votes, and were awarded disproportionately to members with the most influence, Portman said.

“Now that I’m more senior around here, maybe you could argue that that could be good,” Portman said. “But I just don’t think it’s good policy.”