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Renewed talk of reviving earmarks down the road
There's renewed talk on Capitol Hill of a possible return to earmarks if the Democrats win back the House in November.
Some congressional Democrats are starting to push the party to consider reviving the practice of directing federal spending to pet projects, which could help them pass an infrastructure package and other major spending bills on the Democratic agenda if they are in power next year.
An aide for Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said in a statement to The Hill that the Maryland lawmaker is currently talking to members about the idea and working to build bipartisan support to reinstate earmarks, as long as they include reforms to ensure transparency and accountability.
Still, the move would be a heavy political lift, especially for Republicans, given that critics have long decried earmarks as wasteful "pork barrel" spending. Less than two years ago, a GOP-led effort to revive the practice right after the 2016 election was quickly quashed amid concerns it would look hypocritical since Trump had just promised to drain the swamp in Washington.
"It's never going to be easy," Hoyer said at a hearing earlier this year, referring to earmarks. "There's no good time to do this. It will be politically controversial. But I think the way it will be done is both parties will participate."
With growing frustration over the polarization and gridlock on Capitol Hill, there are members in both parties who believe they should fully embrace their spending powers in the new Congress.
Returning to the old system would give Democrats more of a say in how government funds are disbursed, instead of leaving it in the hands of the executive branch. That could put pressure on the GOP, which implemented an internal conferencewide ban on earmarks in 2011, to once again participate in the process.
"There's no chance that if the Democrats take over the House they're going to acquiesce these decisions to the Trump administration," a former House GOP aide told The Hill. "I would be shocked if the Democrats don't go forward [with earmarks]."
One Democratic aide said that appropriators aren't focused on the issue of earmarks right now, but acknowledged there will be a desire among Democrats to use them if they are in power.
"Were we to win the majority, that's something we'd be interested in," the aide said. "I expect that will be a conversation if we win the majority. There's obviously interest among leadership."
Democrats are currently being encouraged to submit suggestions for next year's House rules package, which would govern how the chamber operates. That measure would need to be approved by lawmakers on the House floor.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the ranking member on the House Rules Committee who's been supportive of earmarks, is taking submissions from Democratic lawmakers until Friday, but a final package isn't expected to emerge before the midterm elections on Nov. 6.
The moratorium on earmarks is a GOP conference rule, not a House rule, initiated under now-former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after the 2010 Tea Party wave that put House Republicans back in charge of the chamber.
The practice, which became commonplace in the 1990s and 2000s, came under fire from critics in both parties who said the system was being abused, pointing to scandalous projects like the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.
But over the years, members on both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly frustrated with their inability to secure federal funding for specific projects and other needs in their districts, saying the lack of earmarks has ceded too much power to the executive branch.
Earmark proponents point out that the ban hasn't saved taxpayers any money, it has just limited Congress's say in how the money is spent. They also note that the moratorium has made it more difficult for Congress to pass major legislation. Earmarks were often used to sweeten the pot for reluctant lawmakers to support a broader bill.
"If members of Congress had the ability to direct funding - through a reformed and transparent process - to specific projects in their district, it would provide a much needed shot in the arm and help return the broken budgetary process back to regular order," said Sean Joyce, the CEO of Atlas Crossing and a former GOP staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
After Boehner's departure from Congress in 2015, some supporters saw an opening to bring back earmarks.
The GOP was slated to hold a conference vote to lift the moratorium shortly after the 2016 election, with supporters saying there were enough votes to pass the rules change. But Republican leaders, concerned about the optics, urged the conference to hold off on a vote.
Instead, the House Rules Committee held hearings on the topic earlier this year, when a number of lawmakers from both parties testified in support of earmarks and discussed how the system could be reformed.
The idea of bringing back earmarks is likely to gain steam next Congress if Democrats are in control, which would force the GOP to make a decision on the idea as well.
Earmarks could be seen as a particularly useful legislative tool if one party holds a slim majority in the House; leaders may have a tougher time passing major pieces of legislation if a handful of lawmakers can derail the vote.
The practice would also come in handy for drafting a massive infrastructure bill, which Democrats want to prioritize if they win the majority.
Reviving earmarks could be easier for Democrats since they never prohibited them, and the moratorium was never included in the House rules.
"The big question is not whether they do it," the former GOP aide said. "It's what do the House Republicans do in that situation? And then, what does the Senate do?"
If Democrats start using earmarks, Republicans in both chambers may think twice about sitting on the sidelines while members across the aisle get to reap the rewards. That would likely pose a challenge for the next leader of the House GOP, even with widespread support among Republicans.
Prominent outside conservative groups and the powerful House Freedom Caucus, which will have a strong say in choosing Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) successor, remain staunchly opposed to earmarks.
Democratic leaders could also face some blowback, especially since the party is running on an anti-corruption platform this fall, with earmarks being synonymous with the Washington swamp.
To make the earmarks pill easier to swallow, some proponents have suggested ways to make the system more transparent and curb its potential for abuse.
Party rules implemented by Democrats in 2007 included banning earmarks for private sector projects, making public the list of earmarks and who requested them, and requiring members to verify they have no personal financial stake in the request.
Republicans, meanwhile, have made suggestions that include reviving earmarks only for certain infrastructure needs, such as Army Corps of Engineers projects.
"It is highly unlikely something called 'earmarks' return," Joyce said. "Instead you're more likely to see tools which would redirect spending power out of nameless bureaucrats' hands ... and place that authority back into the hands of Congress, only with strict new rules that demand a transparent process, elected member accountability and a committee vetting process."
Mike Lillis contributed