House GOP sets its sights on earmark ban

A group of Republicans is working on a game plan aimed at lifting the House ban on earmarks early next year.

While the frustrated GOP lawmakers concede that eradicating the ban is not going to happen this Congress, they have become more outspoken in recent weeks and months. Their goal is to change the House’s policy in 2013.

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However, significant obstacles are in their way, most notably Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican worked for years to institute the ban and has touted it throughout his Speakership. Moreover, Mitt Romney, the presumptive 2012 GOP nominee, has endorsed a permanent ban on earmarks.

Conservative Rep. John Culberson (Texas) is the most recent GOP lawmaker to publicly push back against the ban that was formally adopted when Republicans took control of the House in 2011. 

Culberson, the chairman of a military-construction appropriations panel, expressed exasperation earlier this week that he can’t expedite the expansion of a governmental military facility in Ohio, which is now slated for 2016.

“In light of new security threats to our country and our allies, expansion of [the Foreign Materials Exploitation Lab] is desperately needed now. And because of the earmark ban, I can’t move it … it’s just nuts,” Culberson told The Hill.  

Several weeks ago, Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.) stood up during a closed-door GOP conference meeting to tell leaders that a majority of members want earmarks to return. His comment sparked applause from some Republican members.

Rogers told The Hill, “What I would like to see happen is a situation where we can’t advocate for private company and for-profit [companies]. But if it’s a state, county or local government in our district, we should be able to advocate for a project that is beyond the scope of what they can do and need federal partnership. I think you are going to see a lot of members advocating for [that arrangement]. Because right now we are prohibited from advocating for anything for our states.”

The Alabama lawmaker claimed Boehner told the conference that “it may be worthwhile for us to revisit the subject.” 

A House GOP leadership aide disputed Rogers’s comments, saying the Speaker did not respond to Rogers in the conference meeting.

Culberson says he’s been “pounding” the leadership to move on the reforms, as well as “educating” his colleagues on the “urgency” of the situation.

“This is an evolving conversation … This was designed as a temporary ban, and I’m only talking about infrastructure for national security purposes or critical infrastructure. For example, flood control or transportation, that’s critical public infrastructure, which we have no conflict of interest, no personal interest of any kind and is utterly transparent,” Culberson said. 

Kevin Smith, Boehner’s communications director, said, “We have an earmark ban in place and there are no plans to change it.”

As pro-earmark House Republicans huddle, there appears to be less of an appetite to lift the ban in the Senate. 

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a senior appropriator who voted in February against an amendment calling for a permanent earmark ban, said the matter has not come up much in the Senate Republican Conference.

But when asked if he believes the earmark ban is temporary, Cochran responded, “Yes.”

The earmark ban measure was rejected, though it was backed by most Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

For many, both inside and outside Congress, “earmark” is a dirty word in the wake of various earmark-related controversies and scandals. It also serves as a bitter reminder of how Republicans lost their fiscal way before losing control of Congress in 2006.

For that reason, outgoing Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) contends that the GOP will long shun earmarks.

“With elections coming up and everyone having anti-incumbency problems, there’s absolutely no way,” Burton said. 

Rogers, who is optimistic that reforms will be made in the organization of the next Congress, acknowledged that the matter might not be addressed until after the elections in November.

“I don’t think you are going to hear a lot about it between now and the election because the word ‘earmark’ is what changed these things, and what we’re talking about is advocacy, not parochial gigs for specific companies,” Rogers said. 

Earmark proponents say a permanent ban on earmark spending would be an abdication of the Article I declaration that Congress has the power of the purse.

“Constitutionally, the power to appropriate is the Congress’s. We have given it over to the administration. Earmarks have not stopped. They’ve just been done by the administration now, and they are being done in all Democrat districts,” Rogers said.

Prior attempts to reform the earmark process have been unsuccessful. 

In early 2009, a 10-member select committee was unable to resolve differences over how to reform the process. 

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an appropriator and member of that panel, attributed that failure, in part, to the panel’s inability to define the term “earmark.”

“There are some people who think that earmarks are just in appropriations bills, and that the limited tariff provisions shouldn’t apply or that transportation shouldn’t apply or that water projects shouldn’t apply. If you are going to reform the process, then you’ve got to spend some time deciding what exactly you are going to do,” Simpson said.

GOP lawmakers, supportive of the current ban, said that earmarks would likely return in a limited fashion, and under a new name.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) denounced the “horrible abuse” of the earmark process under the prior GOP majority, pointing out that lawmakers have been running into problems — such as facilitating a land-transfer deal to a city — because of the ban.

“We need to sit down systemically with some people who are not excited about having earmarks again, give them a name … In Utah we call them ‘line-item’ spending or directed spending … come up with a way that there’s going to be transparency and that you’re not going to be able to airdrop them in, sneak them through, do it on the floor at the last minute, and I think we could come up with a way of doing it,” Bishop said. 

 — Bob Cusack contributed to this report.