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Interview with Former Rep. Tom Davis: Can Earmarks Fix Congress?

(David Butow—Redux for TIME)

“In my district, I wasn’t just Tom Davis—I was ‘Mr. Woodrow Wilson Bridge.’ I was the guy who closed Morton and got 3,000 acres donated to the county. Those were the kinds of tangible efforts where people may not like my party, but they saw some redeeming qualities in me to keep me around.”

A member of the famous “Class of 1994,” Tom Davis represented Virginia’s 11th congressional district from 1995 to 2008. During his time in Congress, he served as Chair of the House Oversight Committee and Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Since his retirement in 2008, Congressman Davis has taught classes about politics and government at George Mason University, and he now serves Director of Federal Government Affairs for Deloitte LLP. He spoke with Merion West editor Erich Prince about being a member of the Class of ’94, the actual day-to-day job of being a member of Congress, and how earmarks could be used as a unifying force in Congress.

Congressman, good afternoon. I read your March piece in Politico, “Are Democrats Facing their Own Tea-Party Style Reckoning?” In the piece, you talk about coming into Washington as part of “the Class of ’94.” Obviously, much has been written about the Class of ’94. What was that climate like when you were first entering Congress?

In many ways it was like today, except we’d been in the wilderness for 40 years. Republicans hadn’t had the House in 40 years, and I think a lot of them had given up hope. The House was the institution of Democrats.

This was part of a longer-term movement. It had started long before this, but it galvanized the ’94 election, where we started to move away from our balance-of-power system into more of a parliamentary style, even though the structure of government remained fundamentally federalist. But Gingrich was there to polarize things and make the referendum an absolute referendum on the Clinton Administration and on the Democrats’ control of all levers of government. He did that by having Republicans en masse oppose things Democrats were doing, and it led Republicans into the leadership of the House and the Senate.

Now, governing was different from campaigning, as they found out. They wound up with a lot of new members who had no experience in government, but they had majorities to work with. And they had a strong Speaker. I think that’s a parallel to where we are today.

In the time since the end of your congressional career, you’ve spoken critically of some things happening in the Republican Party, such as in the Politico piece or in the 2008 New York Times Magazine feature on your career by Peter Baker. Have you had some feedback from colleagues you entered Congress with in the Class of ’94? Have they told you what they think about some of these points you’re raising?

I think most of them probably agree. It depends if you’re still in the arena—if you’re still competing for votes trying to win Republican primaries. Most of our members are out. We have more of our class left in the Senate than we do in the House.

What’s happened is that the party has steadily moved more conservative since that time. They’ve attracted new followers, new members of the party, who tend to be conservative, and the parties realigned. What you have is what we call in political science the “ideological sorting of the parties,” where conservatives have moved en masse to the Republican Party and former conservative Democrats have moved to the Republican Party. And liberal Republicans have moved the other way, and the middle is gone.

But no, I think most [of my colleagues] would probably agree with this. Look at Joe Scarborough. I think there’s some hubris there, and he’s making a ton of money working for MSNBC and doing the group-speak over there. But Joe was on the hard right of the Republican Party that entered [in 1994].

In the Politico piece, you talk about how we shouldn’t mistake opposition to a president or opposition to the other side of the aisle for a coherent unity or ideology. Is that something you see going on in the Democratic Party currently?

Absolutely. The one thing that is uniting Democrats right now is Donald Trump. After that, they break down into factions depending on who sent them there. You have urban core members from areas like Boston, New York City, Seattle—some really hard-left members, and Republicans don’t exist in their districts for all intents and purposes. They basically have no guardrails to center them at this point. That’s the epicenter of the Democratic Party, and these folks from safe districts become more and more the majority of the caucus.

Pelosi needs to tame that because you don’t control the party with that ideology. What Gingrich was able to do was recognize that for the Republicans to maintain the majority, he had to keep the swing district members. And that kept us from going too hard-right. Over time, that changed. Under Boehner, and then under Ryan, you had that safe, hardcore Tea Party wing basically vetoing other things the Republicans could do.

It used to be that tough votes were taken by the members from safe districts that could afford to take it, and the other members would get a pass. Now, members from swing districts are the ones providing the majority because the Republican safe district members didn’t think it was Republican-enough or conservative-enough. I think Democrats are going through the same thing. In fact, since I wrote the article, you can take a look at the budget and see the Democrats are having trouble. They’re having a revolt on the Left on some of these issues.

Your district, which was Virginia’s 11th, was a centrist district.

Very much.

Speaker Pelosi was on 60 Minutes [on April 14th), and she said that this Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party is just a handful of people. Is that her effort to contain that leftward shift within her caucus?

Her margin is not that big. Boehner had a bigger margin. Boehner and Ryan both had bigger margins, and they couldn’t contain it. You can’t afford that many defections out of this. The problem that Pelosi has is that these members also have media sympathies; they have social media working for them and everything else, and they’re starting to move into other districts where members may not be quite as Left, and they’re starting to challenge these members [there]. And the path of least resistance for a Democrat is to move Left, unless you’re from a swing district.

But the vast majority of the Democratic Caucus—80 percent of them—are safe Democratic seats. Their path of least resistance is to devote their time and attention to the primary voters, who tend to be pretty Left, because—and I think I said this in the article—the General Election is nothing more than a constitutional formality.

With talk concerning whether or not the Democrats can resist that leftward shift, is there any silver lining to the current state of divided government? I know in that 2008 New York Times Magazine piece you talked about how, “if solving a big problem…you want every perspective at the table.” Is there some benefit, historically, to divided governments like we saw in ’94 and like we’re seeing today?

There’s great benefit because if you don’t solve a problem in a bipartisan way it just festers. Obamacare; in the old days, they would have fixed the problems with it. Same with Dodd-Frank. None of the big issues get tackled today because one side is going to use their leverage to demonize the other side’s efforts, whether its immigration, deficit—these are all solvable problems, but they require tough votes. The way it goes is that members want the other party to take the tough vote and solve the problem so that they can run against it.

Was there a difference when you first entered Congress to when you left around 2008? Did you see members perhaps being penalized more for breaking the party line from when you started to when you ended?

The opposite: when they took away earmarks, they took away the biggest tool the leadership had to try to bring members along—and to bring the other party along on appropriation bills. It’s a lot easier to pass appropriation bills if you have a bridge in it. When they took that tool away, really all they’ve got now are committee assignments and chairmanships.

It’s not the same. I guess they could remove the amendment, not remove the amendment, to the Rules Committee. But the biggest lever we had was earmarks, and they took that away.

So, these days, is the biggest obstruction to crossing party lines committee assignments? Is it the risk of a primary challenge? Is it campaign donations? 

The primaries. It’s getting re-nominated to your district. It can also hurt your fundraising base. I remember I cast an anti-war vote at one point, and I didn’t pick a thing up on the Democratic side. And it cost me with my Republican base. I had a district where no matter which way I went, somebody was going to be mad, and so you try to figure out what was the right thing to do. And then you go out and explain it, you live with it, deal with the consequences and try to do a good job of getting out and explaining it.

I liked that. That fit me pretty well. A lot of these folks that get their news off of the Internet live in their own little bubbles in terms of what cable stations they watch, what radio stations they listen to, who their friends are, what websites they go to. They hear one side of the story. There aren’t true or false questions on these issues. It makes it harder to compromise when everybody is dealing with different facts.

I spoke to Norm Ornstein a few weeks ago, and I asked him if he could do one thing to fix partisan gridlock in Congress what that would be. He said we should try to get members of Congress to move their families to Washington and be there on the weekends and socialize. If there were one or two things, in your view, to “fix things” in Washington so to speak, what do you think they would be?

This may be counterintuitive, but I would bring back earmarks. Earmarks were kind of the ties that bind. You get an infrastructure bill; everybody gets excited about bringing some stuff back. Look, when you run for reelection you want to show people that you’re worth more than your party, particularly in swing districts.

In my district, I wasn’t just Tom Davis—I was “Mr. Woodrow Wilson Bridge.” I was the guy who closed Morton and got 3,000 acres donated to the county. Those were the kinds of tangible efforts where people may not like my party, but they saw some redeeming qualities in me to keep me around. We just don’t have that anymore. The end result is parliamentary behavior. Politics is no longer local.

If Eric Cantor is majority leader, and he had a few projects to bring back, it might have been a different story. I said, “Eric, you’re the majority leader of an institution that has a 12% approval rating. What can you tangibly show Richmond you’re giving them?” And it was the same with Crowley at this point. You’re tied up with your party brand, or your leadership brand, and at a time when change is very rapid, you got a lot of people out here who are looking for alternatives because they’re not happy with the status quo. And they’re not happy with the status quo because a lot of these issues continue to fester.

Do we have a popular climate or a public opinion that would be open to considering your proposal to bring back these earmarks? Or are they completely tainted in the public image?

I’m sure they’re tainted in the public image, and that’s because members have run against them and demonized them so. But if you look at the Constitution, it’s an Article I responsibility. Congress has the power of the purse. Everything was earmarked for the first 150 years of the Republic. It went away as the Executive Branch became stronger.

Somebody earmarks their money somewhere along the line, either a state government, a local government, or a bureaucrat. Why shouldn’t Congress? It has to find the money. Why shouldn’t they have a say in this? I have no problem defending it at all. Members get weak-kneed because some members abused it. You make it more transparent. But earmarks don’t raise a nickel because you’ve already preset your 302a and 302b allocations. It’s just how that money is allocated, and you’re giving Congress a say in how it’s allocated.

I could stay up all day and defend it, but we have some weak-kneed members because somebody has a Bridge to Nowhere, and the press is afraid to stand up against a symbol like that. We’ve become a bumper sticker country where it’s the wall, or it’s tearing kids away from their parents. Well, we don’t get into the complexity of some of these issues. But earmarks would bring it back.

By the way, the Bridge to Nowhere? It came out of Alaska’s allocation. It didn’t hurt my district. And if the member from Alaska wants to build a bridge over there to help some Eskimos, that’s up to him. Democrats are trying to bring [earmarks] back. They want the Republicans to buy in, and the Republicans are saying, “If you bring them back, we’ll take advantage of it.” They’re trying to abuse the issue, as you say. But I think they’re really misunderstood. I think if you bring them back—I don’t think it’s going to defeat anybody.

Are there a lot of people, other former members of Congress, that also endorse your proposal?

I don’t think you have an earmark lobby, but I think if you talk to them, most of them would say, “Of course, you’ve got to bring them back.” If you talk to members privately, not for attribution, I can guarantee that a majority of the House and the Senate wants to bring them back. They’re just afraid of the negativity that may be attached to it.

And the press is part of this?

Of course. The media is out to sell newspapers, I get it. But so what? If you can’t take a tough vote, why do you want to serve? I’ll tell you this: [being in Congress] is not that great of a job. I’ve got some fulfillment out of it because I was the chief sponsor of a hundred bills that went through. But I make a lot more money practicing law right now—and a lot more money as a consultant at Deloitte than I ever made in Congress. And I have more free time and a lot less hassle. It’s not that great of a job. People don’t realize it. And I didn’t realize it until I left and figured out that I could take a day and walk my dog instead of sitting in a suit with a bunch of lobbyists making small talk.

I don’t know why people run, but if you can’t take a tough vote and you’re afraid of losing, you don’t belong in Congress. There’s nothing wrong with losing if you’re there for the right reasons. The voters don’t want you? Fine, do something else. It just baffles me. But the report card in Congress seems to be, “I either win or I lose,” and not, “Did I do a good job?” Some of the most principled people were the Democrats who lost because they voted for the Civil Rights bill, for example. But they could leave and look themselves in the mirror, and their legacy is better than the people who stayed. That’s my view of it.

I appreciate your time today, Congressman.

Thank you, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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