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Earmarks And Pork-Belly Spending, Long The Bane Of Congress

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Earmarks and pork-barrel spending are as American as a bridge to nowhere. They're little, and sometimes not so little, holiday packages designed to win the votes of senators and representatives for national legislation with government money that's earmarked to directly benefit their states or districts. Many Democrats have groused about the latest examples that have been added, often in hand-written scrawls, into the new tax bill. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and joins us now. Norm, thanks for being with us.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: A pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What are some of the earmarks you've noticed in this tax bill?

ORNSTEIN: Well, we have, of course, the most famous one, which is now being called with hashtags all over Twitter, the Corker kickback, named for Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee who had famously said quite early on I will not vote for any tax bill that adds a dime to the deficit and then turned around at the last minute and voted for this one with a provision added very, very late in the game to provide additional benefits to a particular set of real estate LLC's, as they're called, a particular kind of corporation. And Corker has significant investments in them, as does Donald J. Trump and other members of the Trump family - something that would specifically give them millions in additional tax benefits.

We haven't had many instances in the past that I can ever remember of earmarks that provided at least collateral substantial financial benefits to the lawmakers writing the provisions or being asked to vote for them. There's something really unseemly about this, but it's actually not illegal.

SIMON: Norm, politicians have said to me - and I'm sure many more have said to you over the years - look, earmarks are necessary to move legislation that's good for the country. How do you meet that argument?

ORNSTEIN: If we're talking about the general issue of whether there should be things like earmarks, targeted programs through direct funding or authorizing things or through tax legislation that can benefit a particular industry or a particular district or state, you can make a strong case - and I've made it before - that these are not illegitimate things to do. What happened is that the earmarking process, which goes back right to the beginning of the Republic, worked reasonably well because most of the lawmakers put some boundaries around it. They made sure it wasn't abused.

And a seminal time was when Dennis Hastert became the speaker of the House of Representatives at a time when the majority was a fairly shaky one and, in part to preserve that majority, just opened up this process to let individuals decide how they wanted to allocate huge pots of money. It turned out he benefited himself enormously by making sure that there was a specific exit ramp for a highway in his state of Illinois in his district that was right by property that he owned that increased its value by millions of dollars. Lots of others took advantage of this, and it became a corrupting process. And we saw a big backlash, an attempt to remove most of those earmarks. Now, it's moved back a little bit in the other direction.

SIMON: We should note, of course, that former Speaker Hastert went to prison for using presumably some of the money he made to try and squelch a story about him forcing himself on a young student when he was a teacher and a wrestling coach.

ORNSTEIN: Yeah. Dennis Hastert, who in many ways corrupted the legislative process when he was speaker, turned out to be somewhat more corrupt in other ways. When there's so much money involved in Congress, there's no doubt it can be corrupting. At the same time, you've got to find ways to get majority support for bills that can cut across some ideological areas and keep the government moving. It's trading things to get votes. Sometimes there's a price to be paid. We had plenty of this in one of the most exemplary pieces of legislation, the famous 1986 tax reform package that everybody points to as a way in which you want to make policy and improve the economy by reducing the rates and broadening the base and not draining the deficits.

But when we looked at that bill after it was enacted, it had all kinds of special provisions that benefited contributors or constituents of some of the lawmakers involved. That's sort of the way in which legislation gets done, but there's a limit here or ought to be. And it sure seems to me looking at this tax bill that we went way over the line.

SIMON: Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute and one of the co-authors of the new book "One Nation After Trump;" thanks so much for being back with us, Norm.

ORNSTEIN: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.