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Trump gives Congress a hard sell on the benefits of earmarks

As a candidate, Donald Trump was desperate to "drain the swamp" and reject "politics as usual." As a president, he now wants Congress to bring back earmarks.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Yesterday's White House meeting was largely about immigration policy, but there was one unexpected topic Donald Trump spent a surprising amount of time emphasizing.

"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. 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. [...]"[I]n the old days of earmarks, you can say what you want about certain presidents and others, where they all talk about 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.... I think you should look at a form of earmarks.... Maybe you should start bringing back a concept of earmarks.... If you want to study earmarks to bring us all together, so we all get together and do something, I think you should study it."

According to the transcript, the president talked up earmarks 10 times yesterday -- which is a lot for a subject Trump has generally ignored up until now.

Why this is suddenly such an area of interest for Trump is unclear, but whatever the motivation, it's been kind of amazing to see the evolution of Republican thinking on the subject.

Longtime readers may recall that ahead of the 2010 midterms, GOP officials and candidates went after earmark practices with a vengeance. For Republicans, earmarks were little more than corrupt expenditures -- pet projects, added as special favors to unscrupulous lawmakers -- offering clear proof of wasteful, pork-barrel spending. When the GOP took control of the House in early 2011, one of the party's first tasks was imposing an earmark moratorium.

It didn't take long for Republicans to regret the move. By 2012, some GOP members were "begging" party leaders to restore at least some version of earmarks. Four years later, in 2016, many in the party were eager, if not desperate, to roll back the clock and go back to the pre-2011 system.

That hasn't happened, at least in part because everyone thought restoring earmarks would be sharply at odds with Trump's "drain the swamp" promises. And yet, there was the president yesterday, publicly making the case that buying off members of Congress with pet projects might help the political system work more effectively.

Indeed, I've heard plenty of substantive arguments in support of earmarks, but Trump didn't bother: he effectively suggested a little corruption would help D.C. function better than it does now.

Politico reported yesterday, meanwhile, that Trump isn't the only one who supports changes. Republicans on the House Rules Committee, the article noted, "plan to revive a debate over earmarks in hearings launching next week, even as members of their own party blast the banned practice as a symbol of the Washington swamp."

Watch this space.