In 2010, my former boss, the late U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), did something “the establishment” thought was impossible. He won an outsider, insurgent struggle against pork-barrel spending. Five years earlier, in 2005, we lost an amendment to kill a little-known pork barrel project that came to be called the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska by 67 votes. The lopsided 82-15 tally actually made our victory possible. The loss didn’t embarrass Coburn, it embarrassed Congress. The vote turned Coburn into a folk hero (the Wall Street Journal called him “Coburn the Barbarian”), Parade magazine put the bridge on its cover, and millions of taxpayers were horrified to see just how out of touch and corrupt the modern Congress had become.
After the 2010 Tea Party election, Sen. Mitch McConnell, who supported earmarks, actually put the ban into effect. “Old habits aren’t easy to break,” McConnell said, “but sometimes they must be. And now is such a time.”
Every year since, politicians in both parties have said this was the year earmarks would be coming back. Every year they have been wrong. While the ban was bent, it never went away. Yet, with Democrats in control of all three branches of government, and Republicans shell-shocked, confused, and adrift in the age of post-Trump Trumpism, the earmark ban is under assault again.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) is approaching his colleagues with a political seduction ploy that is predictable, but no less grotesque for that. According to reports, Hoyer privately promised Democrats’ earmarks would be limited to “nonprofits” and for state and local government. He also promised Democrats they wouldn’t take the heat for restarting a special interest spending orgy because it would be “bipartisan.”