RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week the House Rules Committee holds hearings on earmarks. That's the now banned congressional practice of adding money to spending bills for pet projects. Some of those projects have been ridiculed over the years, as President George H.W. Bush noted in a State of the Union message.
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GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Every year the press has a field day making fun of outrageous examples. Lawrence Welk Museum, research grants for Belgian endive. We all know how these things get into the budget, and maybe you need someone to help you say no.
MARTIN: So now President Trump is raising the possibility of bringing back earmarks, suggesting that members of Congress need someone to help them say yes in order to grease the skids of legislation. And we are putting our questions about earmarks to Cokie Roberts. She joins us now. Hey, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right.
ROBERTS: (Laughter) Belgian endives.
MARTIN: Yeah. We're going to get back to that. I'm not going to let that go. But let's get to the first question, which gets right at this issue of greasing the skids so to speak. It comes via Twitter from Adam Soloman, who writes as follows (reading) Cokie, do you think bringing back earmarks could put a tool that encourages bipartisanship back in the hands of congressional leaders? In service of transparency did we inadvertently weaken party leaders and make it harder to cut deals?
ROBERTS: Well, that's what the proponents of earmarks would say, that the leaders are now left with only sticks and no carrots. They can say to a member whose vote they want, you can't have a committee pose. But they can't say, you can have the Lawrence Welk Museum. And those kinds of earmarks did make it much easier for members to go home to their districts and explain a tough vote. They could say, but look what I got for you.
MARTIN: This isn't a partisan debate. So what are the arguments here?
ROBERTS: Well, the people want to bring back what they call congressionally directed spending say that it not only makes legislating easier, but right now the executive branch gets to call the shots. It gets to allocate where money in a spending bill on something like highways, for instance, gets spent. And they say that's a congressional prerogative. Opponents of earmarks say they cost too much money, they make Congress look awful. They cite Congressman Duke Cunningham who went to jail for bribes related to defense earmarks. And they say it's just the opposite of draining the swamp.
MARTIN: Several listeners have been thinking about the idea that excess comes along with earmarks. This is something Josh Gronemeyer was thinking about. He writes, (reading) how much of an effect has the earmark ban had on wasteful spending? Seems like trading the possibility of breaking Congress's gridlock isn't worth bringing back shady, pork barrel spending.
ROBERTS: Well, you could be more transparent so it wouldn't be so shady so we would know exactly how much money and who's asking for it. And the bottom line is it really didn't add that much to spending. These were often small amounts in great, big bills. That Lawrence Welk Museum, for instance, was a half a million dollars. And one person's wasteful spending, Rachel, is another person's economic development grant. And in the words of conservative Republican Steve King - I'm quoting here - "there will always be earmarks. It's just that the administration runs the earmarks today."
MARTIN: All right. So we can't let you go without settling the fate of the Lawrence Welk Museum, which we have referenced now numerous times. This was a real thing.
ROBERTS: Yes. It's now a museum in his childhood home in Strasburg, N.D. But Belgian endives...
MARTIN: Yeah. Let's - what about the Belgian endives?
ROBERTS: The research shows that it could be very, very helpful in medicinal purposes. So Belgian endive turned out to be a worthy research project.
MARTIN: Good thing we did that research. All right. Endives, please. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government works by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie. Thanks so much, Cokie.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.