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 SessionsThe Hill's Campaign Report: New polls show Biden leading by landslide margins The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - In Rose Garden, Trump launches anti-Biden screed Pete Sessions wins GOP runoff in comeback bid 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 TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards 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 WalkerMike Johnson to run for vice chairman of House GOP conference The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by National Industries for the Blind - Woodward book revelations rock Washington The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Facebook — Trump, Biden duel in final stretch | Vaccine trial on pause after recipient's 'potentially unexplained illness' | Biden visits Michigan | Trump campaign has 18 events in 11 states planned in the next week 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 HoyerHouse Democrats postpone vote on marijuana decriminalization bill Democrats scramble on COVID-19 relief amid division, Trump surprise The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep 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 RooneyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons 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 RichmondRep. Cedric Richmond set to join House Ways and Means Committee Biden campaign ratchets up courting of Black voters, specifically Black men Buttigieg, former officials added to Biden's transition team 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 YoungFlorida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum House Democratic campaign leader predicts bigger majority Young wins Alaska GOP House primary 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 RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates 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 Culberson2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Bottom line Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm 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 ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight 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 FlakeJeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Republican former Michigan governor says he's voting for Biden Maybe they just don't like cowboys: The president is successful, some just don't like his style 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 McCaskillMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Democratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary Trump mocked for low attendance at rally 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.