House Republicans battle leaders over earmark rules

House Republicans battle leaders over earmark rules

House Republicans in line to chair important committees want less-stringent earmark spending rules next year, when they hope to be in control of the chamber.

Senior Republicans are pushing for a policy that would allow earmarks, the provisions lawmakers insert in spending bills to fund projects in their districts, but would make the process more transparent. House GOP leaders imposed a temporary moratorium on all earmarks in March in a bid to demonstrate fiscal discipline in an election year.

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That moratorium expires at the end of the year, when a new policy will be put in place, said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“It is just a moratorium, it’s not a total ban,” he said.

Mica said it was more important to have a consistent “protocol on what’s acceptable” for earmarks than to have a complete prohibition on them.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, has backed the one-year moratorium but has also defended lawmakers’ right to earmark money for specific projects.

Lewis “supports the constitutional authority of Congress — not the president or the executive branch — to craft budgets and determine federal spending,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Hing.

The push to free up earmark powers could put Republican leaders in a tough spot by creating a clash with the party’s earmark hawks.

Rep. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeCures bill clears first Senate hurdle Senate GOP to Obama: Stop issuing new rules Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump MORE (R-Ariz.), a leading earmark opponent, said the moratorium on earmarking should be extended into next year if lawmakers can’t come up with a plan for real reform. Flake has railed against the earmark process, arguing that it shows Congress’s inability to deal with spending and the country’s debt.

“Unless we make some progress on some real changes, we have a moratorium,” Flake said. “I haven’t seen any coherent proposal yet.”

Rep. Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteHouse GOP picks two women to lead committees Victims of Nazi Art theft need Congress to HEAR Passing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy MORE (R-Va.) is trying to come up with a more comprehensive policy on earmarks and federal spending, several GOP lawmakers said. Goodlatte, a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who has sought earmarks in the past, has spoken with both earmark opponents such as Flake and earmarkers such as Mica, but he has yet to outline what a reform plan could look like.

Mica has sought reforms making it easier for the public to track how earmarks are requested and awarded, such as a requirement that earmarks be made public days ahead of a committee hearing on the bill that carries them.

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GOP members said any proposal for reforming the earmark process probably won’t come for months, not as Republicans focus on hitting Democrats for overseeing a deficit expected to reach $1.5 trillion this year.

“A lot of members have good ideas for reforming the way Congress spends the American people’s money,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World 'Ready for Michelle' PACs urge 2020 run MORE (R-Ohio). “The priority right now is getting Washington Democrats to stop their out-of-control spending spree and join Republicans in a real earmark moratorium and other steps to get our fiscal house in order.”

Earmarks make up a small portion of the nearly $1.4 trillion in this year’s federal discretionary spending budget, which doesn’t include money for entitlement programs.

Congressional earmark spending in 2010 will be about $11.1 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Earmarked spending for this year is slightly larger — nearly $16 billion — according to the fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which argues that the official earmark tally doesn’t include money steered to specific districts by federal agencies at the request of lawmakers.

The crackdown on earmarks comes as voters have show increasing frustration over spending. Three members of the Appropriations committees, which control spending bills and most earmark awards, have lost primary challenges in the past three weeks: Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).

Democrat Mark Critz, however, won a special election Tuesday to take over the seat held by former Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who died earlier this year. Murtha used the earmark process heavily, and Critz was one of his staffers.

Democrats, who instituted a permanent ban on earmarks for for-profit companies in March, argue that they see cracks in the GOP’s earmark message just months into its moratorium.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) sent letters last week to 116 Republican House members who had requested that earmarks be included in a bill authorizing federal water infrastructure projects. Oberstar’s office said Wednesday that just a “couple dozen” GOP members so far have asked to have their requests withdrawn.

“The temporary Republican earmark freeze is one of the biggest shams in Washington, and that is saying something,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a member of the House Democratic leadership. “Some GOP members won’t abide by the pledge, and it is clear they will reinstate their old rules and practices, which led to an explosion in earmarks under their watch, once the election is over.”