House armed services panel unveils earmark-free legislative process

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) today unveiled a process to keep earmarks out of defense authorization legislation while also allowing lawmakers to shape the bills. 

House leaders have tightened members’ ability to direct funds to pet projects that benefit their districts by enacting a moratorium on earmarks.

“The leadership has said to the chairmen, ‘If your bill contains earmarks, we won’t bring it to the floor,’” a senior House Armed Services Committee aide said Friday.

“The old system of setting aside pots of money for members based on seniority sliding scale to earmark to their districts or companies is a relic of a bygone age,” McKeon wrote in guidance sent to Armed Services members Friday. The Hill obtained a copy before it was distributed.

The new process set up by committee staff seeks to strike a balance, senior aides acknowledged.

McKeon and senior staffers will strictly enforce House leadership’s earmark ban, but aides described to reporters a process under which panel members can pitch their “legislative proposals” for up-or-down votes by the full committee.

Under the process, no proposal can move federal funds directly to “any locality or any company,” the senior committee aide said.

While proposals cannot point to specific programs, they can seek to address the Army’s research and development budget, according to the aides.

All members’ proposals must, as has been the panel’s practice, identify an offset for the funds they seek to move, committee aides said.

All proposals will be voted on by the full committee and posted online, aides said.

 House members who are not part of the Armed Services Committee will not be able to amend the authorization bill until it reaches the House floor.

McKeon’s guidance references “Clause 9 of Rule XXI of the Rules of the House of Representatives” that defines what is considered an earmark. 

“There may be more than one way to interpret” House rules as they relate “to bill and report language associated with the national defense authorization bill,” McKeon writes in the guidance. “Please be advised that I interpret the definition of what constitutes a ‘congressional earmark’ conservatively.”

The process is intended to allow the committee to follow its “article one responsibilities” — a reference to the constitutional language calling for Congress to “provide for the common defense” — while enforcing House leaders’ earmark ban, the senior committee aide said.

Amendments meeting the House's earmark description have traditionally amounted to about 3 percent of the total amount the panel has authorized the Pentagon to spend each year, aides said.