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Tom Davis: Trump & Dems must talk to end 'stupid' shutdown

Among the rule changes implemented by the new Democratic majority in the House was a change that makes one former Republican House leader from Virginia feel just a bit of optimism for a bipartisan future.

The rules package presented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi includes a provision that lifts the prohibition against members placing earmarks on appropriations bills.

Earmarks are amendments to these bills that allow members to direct funds to specific projects. They got a bad rap but they have been sorely missed by many including Tom Davis, who left Congress 10 years ago to join Deloitte Consulting. He recently moved to the law firm Holland & Knight.

“Earmarks are going to come back,” Davis told me.

Davis represented Virginia’s 11th district (which includes most of Fairfax County) from 1994 to 2008. A life-long Republican, Davis left Capitol Hill as partisanship kept rising. And it has gotten worse since, as evidenced by the current partial shutdown.

“There are no winners in a shutdown on either side,” he said. “I’m not saying that there aren’t some strong principles involved but when you look from 30,000 feet it is pretty stupid. You have to ask, 'Couldn’t they come to some sort of solution?’”

Which is why he believes the return of earmarks could help ease some of the partisanship that has Congress in perpetual gridlock.

“It’s a constitutional responsibility under Article 1,” he said. “Congress controls the purse. Why give up that authority? Why would the Democrats say: 'Donald Trump, you decide where the money goes'.”

And members like it.

“You put up an appropriations bill, you might not like everything in it, but you got a bridge or an additional lane, or a dam reclamation project. That can get me to 'Yes,' pretty quick,” he said.

But if there is nothing in the bill for a member’s district and they have to rely on the administration of either party, the default vote is a "No."

Earmarks increasingly fell out of favor after the 2005 scandal involving then-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-California), who went to jail after it was revealed he was being financially rewarded by the owner of a government contractor for placing earmarks that benefited his company.

MZM Inc. had a meteoric rise and cracked the 2005 Washington Technology Top 100 at No. 100.

“It isn’t that earmarks are bad, but you need transparency,” Davis said.

He’s convinced that if Republicans had re-instated earmarks they could have held onto five or six more seats in the 2018 midterm elections. “But these members went back to their districts and had nothing to show for having been here,” he said.

The return of earmarks isn't a done deal because the Senate needs to join in as well and hasn’t yet, but Davis said he sees interest.

Earmarks can bring back an aura of bipartisanship, but they also can foster more innovation.

“Drones were an earmark,” Davis said. “The Defense Department was resistant to starting up a drone program, so it was put up as a congressional earmark. And look at how it has grown.”

Inside government there is a fear of risk. “What you find bureaucratically is that there is resistance to change,” he said. “Many times in government the mission is to not make a mistake.”

But with an earmark, a member of Congress is telling an agency to do something and here is the money for it.

“Earmarks can infuse some new ideas,” he said. “You convince a key member to insert something in the bill that someone in the bureaucracy would be reluctant to embrace.”

While earmarks aren’t going to solve the current shutdown, there needs to be a spirit of cooperation. But right now that is lacking.

Both sides have too much to lose. Trump has made the Border Wall his signature issue. Caving risks losing his base.

“You have to understand that if Trump folds on this, he gets beaten up on talk radio, on cable news, on the internet,” Davis said.

He can’t afford to lose that base because impeachment is a serious threat once the Mueller report is released. “If his electoral base collapses, that’s very bad,” Davis said.

Democrats have made the Border Wall a moral issue and that makes it very hard for them to back down, he said.

Democrats also have their own base to contend with, especially with the Mueller report looming.

“When the Mueller report drops and if they don’t act, they’ll have to face their base and deal with that,” Davis said. “They have the Herbal Tea Party.”

Another challenge is that there is no political price to pay right now. “The elections aren’t for nearly two years so they (both sides) can stay tough for a while,” he said.

But as TSA agents, food inspectors and the other 800,000 affected government employees suffer and other programs languish, the political price will rise.

“The money move right now for Trump is to sit down and negotiate a transportation bill,” Davis said. “Everyone loves infrastructure and everyone gets something out of it.”

By the time the 2020 elections roll around, projects are under way and jobs are being created.

“Strategically, I’d sit down with the Democrats,” Davis said.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jan 10, 2019 at 2:06 PM


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