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Trump wants to bring earmarks back. Here’s why it’s not so crazy.

President Trump told members of Congress that they should consider reinstating earmarks. Here’s what you need to know about the practice. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Anything that stands in the way of President Trump winning is bad and must be dealt with. That has been an overarching theme of his first year in office, and on Tuesday it led the president to make a not-so-humble recommendation: reinstate earmarks.

“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 at a meeting with congressional leaders. “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.”

The comment was met with immediate condemnation from fiscally conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which led the successful effort to ban earmarks — local projects inserted by members into spending bills — in 2011. At the time, both President Barack Obama and the tea party agreed that the practice had become corrupt and had to be halted. The temporary ban has yet to be lifted.

So what are the prospects for lifting it now?

There is some momentum behind going back to earmarks, with the House Rules Committee set to start holding hearings on the subject next week. That momentum exists for the exact reason Trump highlighted: Congress has been historically gridlocked for years thanks to rising partisanship, and earmarks are a great way to grease the skids. If Congressman A from Nevada isn't so sure about your Obamacare replacement bill, getting tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects in Reno can be pretty compelling. With the GOP back in power but still struggling to pass major legislation, the time is ripe.

It's not difficult to see how such things can quickly go wrong. Former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and superlobbyist Jack Abramoff went to jail because of earmark-related bribes. Then there was the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a project to connect the tiny Alaskan city of Ketchikan, population about 8,000, to a nearby airport that earned an earmark for $223 million in 2005 and was finally scrapped 10 years later.

Proponents of reinstating earmarks, such as Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), say problems can be solved if there is more accountability, like attaching lawmakers' names to individual earmarks. Some also say that getting rid of earmarks handed over Congress's spending authority to the executive branch. (In the meantime, lawmakers have increasingly figured out ways to get around the ban.)

The big question, though, is whether they could sell this plan to a public that has overwhelmingly opposed earmarks in the past. I think, led by Trump, it's at least possible.

The most recent quality poll on earmarks, from CNN in 2010, showed that just 19 percent of Americans found earmarks generally acceptable, while 79 percent said they were generally unacceptable. It was even more pronounced in the GOP, which opposed earmarks 89 to 11. That's a pretty steep hill to climb.

But if you asked a more nuanced questions with a middle-ground option, people weren't so anti-earmark. A CBS poll in 2009 allowed people to specify that they would “allow Congress to add earmarks to bills, but change the rules about how and when they can be added.” That option took a clear plurality, with 44 percent in support, compared with just 29 percent who wanted to eliminate earmarks. Combine that 44 percent with the 15 percent who wanted to leave the earmarking process as is, and Americans preferred allowing some type of earmarks by a 2-to-1 ratio.

It also seems probable that, now that the tea party is all but over and the fervor over earmarks has had a few years to subside, Americans might have warmed to them. (Sadly, there's no recent polling to say for sure.)

Which brings us to Trump. Whatever you think of him, he has earned the loyalty of the conservative grass-roots movement, and he has maintained it in a lot of cases despite his conservative impurities. If there is someone who could persuade the grass-roots organizations to go along with earmarks — and against groups like the Club for Growth and the House Freedom Caucus — it might be him. Just as I've argued that Trump could be the one to get Republicans on board with comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship, I think he could do the same with earmarks.

That said, restoring earmarks right now — in an election year in which the GOP for now appears headed toward possibly losing control of both chambers of Congress — is a risky bet. Given the connotations that earmarks carry, it's not difficult to see Democrats saying that restoring them represents Republicans violating Trump's “drain the swamp” promises and restoring corruption to Washington. The same could hold true for Trump's 2020 reelection campaign. It's also not difficult to see safe Republicans, who are wary of drawing primary challengers, shying away from supporting such an effort. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that the tea party struck fear in the hearts of dozens of GOP lawmakers and even unseated a few of them.

All of which is to say that this is probably more viable than at any point since 2011, even as it's still probably a bridge too far (so to speak).

Scott Clement contributed to this post.

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