Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a potential 2016 democratic candidate for president, has a creative — and controversial — idea for ending Washington, D.C.’s partisan gridlock: start legislating from behind closed doors, following on other calls to bring back the earmark.
After decades of fights for transparency in government, Hickenlooper told TIME that those well-intended initiatives are making government and lawmakers less effective. “We elect these people to make these difficult decisions, but now they are in the full light of video every time they make a decision,” Hickenlooper said at the National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee, Wis. on Friday. “We elected these people, let them go back into a room like they always did.”
One Republican governor in attendance endorsed the idea on the condition he not be named. This seemingly counterintuitive opinion — that outcomes would improve if the process is obscured — is catching on in Washington among political elites of both parties as a way of making a dysfunctional Congress work again.
Last year Rep. Thomas Reed, a Republican from New York, called on his party’s leadership to reinstate earmarks last year — in a bid to provide a tariff break to one local business. And House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster has made it clear he disagrees with the official Republican position opposing such specialized spending. Likewise Democratic appropriators want to bring back the old system. “Earmarks, in a responsible way, where it’s all public, you know what you want and you know what you’re going to get, I think it’s very, very helpful, because who knows the district better than a member,” Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said in January.
Speaker of the House John Boehner implemented a ban on earmarks — federal funding for pet projects of lawmakers — when Republicans took the House of Representatives in 2011 as part of a push toward transparency and fiscal responsibility. But many have argued that the pork barrel spending served to grease the legislative wheels on Capitol Hill — and blame their absence for contributing to Washington’s legislative stalemate.
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, called the earmark ban “one of the worst decisions Congress has made in recent years,” by ceding earmark authority to the Executive branch and giving most lawmakers little reason to invest their resources backing a bill. “You get members with the earmarks interested in the process and actually helping to try and push forward a piece of legislation — that’s why you have them,” he said.
In the first six months of the 113th Congress just 22 bills — almost none of them significant — have passed both chambers, the fewest number since records began being kept six decades ago. The 112th Congress, the first with the ban, was just as unproductive. Hickenlooper cited constitutional framer James Madison, saying, “part of the way he envisioned democracy working was that you had to trust these people that you elected.”
But there is little momentum within Congress to revert to the old way of doing things in the hopes to grease the wheels of lawmaking, with the Republican conference still beholden to anti-spending tea party lawmakers. “This is pretty simple: earmarks aren’t coming back any time soon,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.
Updated Wed. Aug. 7, 2013: “The governor doesn’t support brining back earmarks,” said Hickenlooper Communications Director Eric Brown.