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 SessionsGOP House super PAC targets two freshman Dems with new ads Top 10 events of 2018 that shaped marijuana policy Washington braces for lengthy shutdown 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 TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery 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 WalkerPartnerships paving the way to sustain and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid Florida governor suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor 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 HoyerWinners and losers in the border security deal Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration 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 RooneyEx-GOP lawmaker joins family firm  The Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington GOP struggles to win votes for Trump’s B wall demand 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 RichmondWhitaker takes grilling from House lawmakers Judge tosses lawsuit seeking redo of controversial Saints-Rams game Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker 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 YoungLive coverage: House elects new Speaker as Dems take charge Inside the Trump-Congress Christmas meltdown House GOP and Puerto Rico governor agree on statehood vote 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 RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration 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 CulbersonDCCC official says Democrats look to make 'big gains' in Texas, Georgia Democrats need a worthy climate plan NASA lost key support to explore Jupiter's moon 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 ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Sarah Sanders says she was interviewed by Mueller's office Trump: I believe Obama would have gone to war with North Korea 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 suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger 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 McCaskillMcCaskill: Lindsey Graham 'has lost his mind' Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government 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.