Ryan stops vote on bringing back earmarks

Ryan stops vote on bringing back earmarks
© Getty Images

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanFixing FDA is literally a matter of life and death Last Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Trump’s Commerce pick backs public spending on transportation MORE (R-Wis.) on Wednesday persuaded Republicans to postpone votes on bringing back legislative earmarks until 2017 after reminding members of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump tweets get-well wishes to Bush family Overnight Tech: Five tech takeaways from Commerce pick's hearing | Groups accuse Facebook of 'censorship' | Wireless auction moves ahead | Pokemon Go at Davos Pence: I’m ‘confident’ in Trump’s health pick MORE’s promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

House Republicans were set to hold a secret ballot on changes to their internal conference rules that would have allowed lawmakers to direct spending to projects in their districts under certain circumstances.

ADVERTISEMENT
Based on what lawmakers were saying in the meeting, “it was likely that an earmark amendment would have passed,” according to a source in the room.

“Ultimately, the Speaker stepped in and urged that we not make this decision today,” the source said.

Behind former Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLast Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions An anti-government ideologue like Mulvaney shouldn't run OMB MORE (R-Ohio), Republicans banned earmarks after winning the House in 2010 and have stuck by that policy despite grumbling from both sides of the aisle.

With the GOP now set to control both Congress and the White House next year, some Republicans are agitating for change.

Reps. John Culberson of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Tom Rooney of Florida filed an amendment to GOP rules that would ease the earmark ban by creating a new process for targeted spending.

A separate proposal by Rooney that focused more narrowly on Army Corps of Engineers projects appeared to have the votes to pass on Wednesday, several lawmakers said.

“After a long debate, it was clear there’s a lot of pent up frustration with ceding spending authority to the Executive Branch,” said the source in the room.

“[The Speaker] said we just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election and cannot turn right around and bring back earmarks behind closed doors.”

But while the votes have been delayed for now, it’s far from certain that Republicans will keep the earmark ban in place when a public vote is held next year.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he expects members to be just as supportive of overturning the earmarks ban in public as they were in private.

“They need to come back,” said Cole, who is chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee. He said that even Ryan had seemed to acknowledge recently the growing demand among members to gain more control over spending bills.

“I think it’s a helpful lubricant to the system,” he said. “It’s a way to take care of problems. Bureaucracies don’t always see the problems.”

Cole said many members of the House GOP have been pushing leadership to open up the funding bills since about 2010.

“It’s sort of like Prohibition. It sounds like a good idea, but a few years into it, there are a lot of unintended consequences,” Cole said. “Maybe it sounds great, but it doesn’t work well.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he would have opposed the earmark amendment in a formal vote.

“I don’t think that would be perceived by the American people as changing the way we do business,” Meadows said.

The amendment from the three lawmakers would “restore Congress’s constitutional duty and allow the more effective use of the power of the purse in a way that is transparent and responsible,” according to a copy of the amendment obtained by The Hill.

Culberson said he and the other sponsors of the amendment agreed to withdraw it because Ryan “pledged to create a transparent and accountable process to restore Congress’s constitutional spending authority by the end of the first quarter of 2017.”

“We are confident we can develop a method to handle directed congressional spending in a way that gives constituents confidence that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent effectively.”

The provision would have allowed lawmakers to direct specific funds to some federal agencies — such as the Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Reclamation — and state and local governments. It would have continued to ban Congress from earmarking federal cash for recreational facilities, museums or parks.

Under the plan, members sponsoring earmarks would have to be identified, the earmarks would have to be started during the committee process, and the earmarks could not increase total spending for any fiscal year.

Republican lawmakers leaving the closed-door meeting told The Hill that the broader amendment appeared unlikely to pass. But the smaller one focused on Army Corps of Engineers, first floated by Rooney in September, would have passed easily.

Prior to the votes, Rooney talked with reporters about his solo amendment. 

“I’m literally looking at it as when I go home to my county commissioners and they say, ‘Can you shore up the dike around Lake Okeechobee?’ ” he said.

“I’m like, ‘No. I can write a letter and hope that they listen to me.’ Which, over at the Army Corps, they probably look at that letter and put it in the shredder. They don’t give a rat’s ass what I think,” Rooney said.

“This is my ability to tell them, no, you’re doing it,” he said of earmarks. “When I got elected, we could do this. Now we can’t.”

The earmark proposals upset several conservative groups, including Heritage Action for America, Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Action, which called the practice an avenue for “cronyism and corruption.”

Rooney took aim at those groups on Wednesday.

“Remember right after they email you and say that this is bad, [they say] ‘donate now,’ ” he said.

“This is a good way to raise money, to scare people that we’re going back to the days of Duke Cunningham or something like that,” Rooney added, referring to the former congressman who was convicted of bribery. “We’re talking about Army Corps projects here. And our ability to deliver for our constituents.”

“What we’re trying to do is actually a constitutional authority given to us by the Founding Fathers, not the executive branch,” he said. “Do they want to waive our authority of the power of the purse to the executive branch and the answer to that, most people would say, is no.”

Scott Wong contributed.