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. 

{mosads}House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (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 Trump 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 Walker (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 Hoyer (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 Rooney (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 Richmond (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 Young (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 Ryan (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 Culberson (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 Clinton 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 Flake (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 McCaskill (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.

Tags Cedric Richmond Claire McCaskill Don Young Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jeff Flake John Culberson Mark Walker Paul Ryan Pete Sessions Steny Hoyer Tom Rooney
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