House Republicans stand to benefit from earmark bans

Rep. Steven LaTourette isn’t a member of the majority party and he doesn’t hold a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, the panel responsible for writing congressional checks.

Yet the Ohio Republican is having one of his best years yet on Capitol Hill in terms of winning earmarks for his district.

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He has secured four projects on his own, valued at about $1.1 million, in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS) appropriations bill this year. Last year, he won support for three projects by himself, worth roughly $620,000 altogether. That represents more than a 77 percent increase in one year.

 “I am happy about it,” LaTourette said.

Republicans like LaTourette are reaping the benefits of a larger pot of earmarks for the party based on others who have decided to pass this year. Even as the party pushes the campaign message this year that earmarks are generally bad for the federal budget, GOP leaders have insisted that the traditional 60-40 split between the earmarks given to the majority and minority party members remain in place.

That leaves a bigger pot to split for people like LaTourette, who don’t think earmark is a dirty word. With about three dozen House Republican lawmakers pledging not to request the projects this year, that could leave the same amount of funds for Republicans, but fewer lawmakers to partake of it.

“I would hope a hundred of my colleagues would not request earmarks,” LaTourette said.

But despite LaTourette’s and others’ push for earmarks, many if not all of the 12 appropriation bills they are attached to are not expected to pass this year. For example, the Labor-HHS spending bill has been caught in limbo after Democrats and Republicans fought over amendments aimed at high gas prices during a committee meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidConservative Senate candidate calls on GOP to end filibuster Ex-Reid aide: McConnell's 'original sin' was casting ObamaCare as 'partisan, socialist takeover' GOP faces growing demographic nightmare in West MORE (D-Nev.) said earlier this month that he expects Congress will hold off on clearing any of the spending bills until President Bush leaves office. Bush has called earmarks wasteful and promised to veto any appropriations bill that has not reduced its earmarks by half from last year’s total.

Nevertheless, several Republicans and a few Democrats in both the House and Senate agreed that earmarks had gotten out of control and adopted personal bans on requesting the projects this year.

House Republicans received less than $2.1 billion in earmarks last year that they sponsored either by themselves or with other GOP members or senators, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.

That leads to an average of more than $10.5 million that a House Republican secured in earmarks last year. But if that total stays the same, GOP members can expect to do better.

As many as 36 House Republicans have pledged not to request earmarks this year, according to lists compiled by the Club for Growth and the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus for conservative GOP members. Up to 29 of those lawmakers did not promise to ask for projects last year.

Those party members still asking for earmarks can expect a substantial bump — about $2 million more, with $12.5 million being the potential average for a House Republican’s earmark haul this year.

LaTourette’s Republican colleagues agree that there is potential for lawmakers on their side of the aisle to see a rise in their fortunes this year.

“If there are fewer requests, there should be more money to go around,” said Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Appropriations Labor-HHS subcommittee. “There probably will be a few increases.”

“If they don’t want earmarks, I have people clamoring for earmarks,” said Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), ranking member on the Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee.

Hobson had not considered the fact that many Republicans might benefit from those in the party who oppose earmarks.

“We never have enough money,” he said.

But Hobson’s own spending bill shows how GOP lawmakers have much to gain this year, with 39 House Republicans not requesting project funding in the Energy and Water appropriations bill, according to a Hobson aide. That’s a marked increase over last year, when 22 GOP lawmakers abstained from requesting earmarks in the bill.

In addition, funding levels have stayed roughly the same. For fiscal year 2008, there was $105.4 million slated for House Republicans’ earmarks. This year, it is about $100 million.

On average, a House Republican can expect to secure more than $650,000 in earmarks from the Energy and Water spending bill this year. That’s a $50,000 increase over last year’s average of more than $600,000 for House Republicans — enough to fund an additional smaller earmark if need be.

Despite the potential boon for Hobson and other GOP lawmakers still requesting earmarks, the senior lawmaker argues it is bad politics for his colleagues to refuse funding and attack others who accept it.

“It is not going be to helpful to win back the majority,” Hobson said, arguing that earmarks help members get elected to Congress. Instead, anti-earmark groups like the Club for Growth and the RSC are “eating their own.”

“It is easier to b---h than to govern,” Hobson said. “It seems the Club for Growth, the RSC want to complain.”

But the Club believes abstaining from earmarks will help lawmakers win votes, citing its own polling in races it has contested showing that voters believe the pet projects can be corrupting.

“It is unfortunate that the congressional members who wield the power to dole out the pork — like Rep. Hobson — are fighting the will of the people. If the GOP wants to reclaim its majority, it will have to return to the principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government that ushered in its majority in the first place,” said Nachama Soloveichik, the Club’s communications director, in a statement to The Hill.

The RSC responded to Hobson’s comments tersely.

“Chairman [Jeb] Hensarling [R-Texas] wishes Mr. Hobson well in retirement,” said Brad Dayspring, RSC spokesman, in an e-mail.

Hobson has announced his retirement from Congress after more than 17 years on Capitol Hill.