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Lawmakers see path to bringing back earmarks

Lawmakers see path to bringing back earmarks
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers from both parties expressed support on Wednesday for reversing the House’s ban on earmarks, despite skepticism from key conservatives who originally pushed to end the practice nearly a decade ago.

The overwhelming consensus at a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday was that allowing members of Congress to authorize pet projects back in their districts makes them more effective at their jobs. 

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House Rules Committee Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsElection Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Credit union group to spend .8 million for vulnerable Dem, GOP incumbents Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE (R-Texas) maintained that any return to earmarks would have to include reforms to enhance transparency, such as making clear who requested funds for a specific project and why.

Adding momentum to the push, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE appeared to endorse reviving earmarks during a meeting at the White House last week, suggesting that they could help Congress function better.

Proponents sought Wednesday to avoid using the term “earmarks;” instead, they described spending that is “congressionally directed,” “member-directed” or “specific.”

“We’re not going back to earmarks. We’re going back to specifically legislating,” Sessions told reporters. 

Yet Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerDisasters become big chunk of U.S. deficit GOP lawmaker reports 'threatening' Twitter messages to police US and Canada working furiously to come to NAFTA agreement MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, warned that Republicans could lose the House majority if earmarks are allowed to return.

“If we make the mistake of restoring the same old earmarks, I fear Republicans will not get the opportunity to take these steps because we will again be relegated to the minority as a consequence for losing our way,” Walker said before the Rules hearing.

He compared reversing the earmark ban to showing up to work drunk.

“There’s nothing illegal about me showing up inebriated to this meeting today, yet it’s not the best judgment,” Walker said.

It’s unclear whether changes to earmarks could happen this year or at the start of the next Congress in January 2019, when the House typically votes on rules for the new session. Enacting earmark reform this year would allow Republicans to use them for spending bills later this year, as well as a possible infrastructure package.

Perhaps crucially for Republicans seeking political cover, House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi: I'd be a 'transitional figure' if Dems retake House Dems damp down hopes for climate change agenda On The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns MORE (D-Md.) testified before the Rules Committee that he would support reinstating earmarks. 

Hoyer noted that Democrats made reforms to earmarks upon taking control of the House in 2007, including public disclosure of every earmark and its sponsor and a public certification from every member that they had no financial interest in an earmark request.

“If a proposal moves forward like this, it is my intention to recommend to my members that it be supported,” Hoyer said.

“No matter what the Congress does on earmarks, it ought to be done in a bipartisan way,” he added.

The discussion about earmarks came amid uncertainty over whether Congress can avoid a government shutdown at the end of this week.

House GOP leaders are pushing to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government open through Feb. 16 before current funding expires at midnight Friday.

If lawmakers go that route, it would be the fourth patch to government funding since September. Lawmakers have yet to agree on overall budget levels, a step that is necessary to pass a full funding bill.

Democrats have been pushing for protections for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children in order to win their votes on a spending bill, while Republicans spent the end of last year on their tax-reform bill.

Rep. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyCongress falls flat on election security as midterms near Senate panel postpones election security bill markup over lack of GOP support Hillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed frustration that the current process isn’t working as well as it could.

“Maybe if we are allowed to actually appropriate for our districts, appropriations bills would actually go to the Senate, go to the president and become law and we wouldn’t be doing this every month,” Rooney said.

There’s also incentive for lawmakers representing low-income populations to allow earmarks. Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondWorking together to improve diversity and inclusion State Department: Allegations of racism 'disgusting and false' Congressional Black Caucus says Kavanaugh would weaken Voting Rights Act protections MORE (D-La.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, argued that lawmakers could use earmarks to respond to constituents’ needs that might not otherwise be addressed.

“For those small towns that don’t have expensive grant writers and clout or that can’t afford to hire lobbyists, we represent those small towns. We are their lobbyists,” Richmond said. 

Members in support of allowing earmarks agreed that any return to the practice would require the use of guardrails to avoid repeats of the past.

In 2006, former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes for directing money to favored projects. 

Around the same time, a proposed $400 million project deemed the “bridge to nowhere” drew attention as an example of so-called pork-barrel spending. The project would have constructed a bridge between the city of Ketchikan, Alaska, and a nearby small island with an airport.

Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungAlaska lawmakers must get serious about Jones Act repeal How the Trump tax law passed: GOP adds sweeteners Election handicapper moves 10 races toward Dems MORE (R-Alaska), a proponent of the bridge, defended it on Wednesday as he expressed support for allowing earmarks. 

“The bridge has not been built. It should have been built,” Young said.

The Rules Committee hearing comes as part of discussions to reinstate earmarks after House Republicans came close to reviving them in late 2016.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMeghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family Atheist group argues in court for prayer rights on House floor Small-dollar donations explode in the Trump era MORE (R-Wis.) persuaded the GOP conference to hold off on reviving earmarks and reminded them that Trump had just won the election on a pledge to “drain the swamp.”

Despite the widespread support for earmarks at Wednesday’s hearing, it’s far from certain the practice will make a comeback.

Unlike many GOP lawmakers, conservative groups remain unconvinced that the earmark ban should be lifted.

The Club for Growth released an ad on Wednesday hammering Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonKavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Ryan blasts Medicare for all | Senate Dems to force vote on 'junk' insurance plans | Ads hit Collins over Kavanaugh vote MORE (R-Texas), who testified before the Rules Committee in support of earmarks.

Culberson is running for reelection in a district that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Katy Perry praises Taylor Swift for diving into politics Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE won narrowly in 2016.

“Bringing back earmarks would be costly both to taxpayers’ wallets and Republicans’ chances of holding a majority in the House,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said.

And the office of Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump boosts McSally, bashes Sinema in Arizona Watch live: Trump speaks at Arizona rally Mnuchin to attend anti-terror meeting in Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi disappearance MORE (R-Ariz.), who pushed to end earmarks and who is retiring after this Congress, plans to hold a bipartisan barbecue pork lunch with Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOvernight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements McCaskill campaign says ‘intern’ who filmed campaign had access to voter data McConnell defends Trump-backed lawsuit against ObamaCare MORE (D-Mo.) on Thursday to “stick a fork in congressional pork.”

“The Senators’ meal will reveal the shocking truth that members on opposite sides of the aisle can eat a meal and get along, all without the aid of earmarks,” an advisory states.