Momentum for earmarks grows with Dem majority

With Democrats back in control of the House after eight years of Republican control, there is strong support for reviving earmarks — the power to direct money on pet projects — which caused a major scandal in Congress during the George W. Bush years.

Senate and House lawmakers from both parties predict there will be a serious push to bring back earmarks once the government shutdown is finally over — with one exception.

Earmarks is a dirty word, so if the specially allocated funds return, they will be referred to as “congressionally directed spending.”

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Support for bringing back earmarks is not unanimous, but it is growing in both parties as Republicans and Democrats alike say too much power has shifted to the presidency.

“When you discontinue earmarks, you’re saying the administration can better spend the money in my district. They know best what we need,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

He said it is “not just some, it is the majority” in the House Democratic Caucus that back ending the earmark ban.

“Based on what I’m hearing, on the other side, they too believe it was a mistake to discontinue earmarks,” he said of his GOP colleagues.

At the same time, he says the internal discussions have been muted because of the partial government shutdown.

“This is not a good time to talk about earmarks,” he said.

Other lawmakers also expressed support for bringing back earmarks.

Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Action on driverless cars hits speed bump as Congress focuses on pandemic Merger moratorium takes center stage in antitrust debate MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWomen suffering steeper job losses in COVID-19 economy The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Crowds return during Memorial Day weekend Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies MORE (D-Calif.), said “it’s definitely worth a review.”

“The idea of member-directed funds, I think it’s a good idea. I know that I was always proud to have press conferences and press releases on all the things I did,” she said.

Schakowsky said the Democratic caucus should “have that conversation” after the shutdown ends.

Republican Rep. Hal RogersHarold (Hal) Dallas RogersBottom line Appropriators face crucial weekend to reach deal Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week MORE (Ky.), who served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 2011 to 2017, when the earmark ban was in effect, says there is now “very substantial” support in the House GOP conference for ending it.

“I would favor that. I think I know more about my district than an executive branch bureaucrat who’s never been to Kentucky, and it’s in the Constitution,” he said.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the most outspoken proponents for bringing back earmarks.

She has discussed it with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff House members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes MORE (R-Ky.) and other colleagues.

“This is something that was clearly set out in the Constitution as the role of the legislative branch,” she says of the power to direct spending to specific projects. “Nowhere does it say, you think about what these priorities are going to be and then give it up to the [federal] agencies to determine what the priority is.”

House Republican leadership considered ending the earmark ban at the beginning of 2018 but ultimately decided not to.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump anti-reg push likely to end up in court Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE at the time encouraged the return to earmarks, remarking, “I hear so much about earmarks ... and how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.”

Congressional earmarks reached their peak in the middle of Bush’s administration, when the fiscal 2005 defense spending bill included 2,506 earmarks worth $9 billion and the energy and water development bill included 2,313 earmarks worth $4.9 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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The proliferation of earmarks fueled the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and led to the downfall of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to directing federal spending after receiving bribes from lobbyists.

The explosion in earmarks prompted a backlash that helped Democrats win control of the House in 2006.

Yet the practice continued unabated under former President Obama and a Democratic Congress.

The fiscal 2009 omnibus spending package included 9,000 earmarks totaling $5 billion.

The practice came to a screeching halt in November 2010, after Republicans took control of the House in the Tea Party revolution and Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi, Trump slide further into the muck The partisan divide on crisis aid Congress must continue to move online MORE (R-Ohio) imposed a ban.

Obama declared in his January 2011 State of the Union that “if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks in it, I will veto it. I will veto it.”

But the ensuing six years of Obama’s presidency was one of the most legislatively unproductive stretches in recent years, marked by stalemates over what had previously been considered routine business, such as raising the nation’s debt limit and funding the government.

Opponents such as BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi, Trump slide further into the muck The partisan divide on crisis aid Congress must continue to move online MORE and former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhat does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space? The Memo: Activists press Biden on VP choice Biden takes page from Trump with public auditions for VP slot MORE (R-Ariz.), who died last year, are no longer in Congress to fight the return of earmarks. 

Other senior Republicans such as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTop Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps MORE (Ala.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntWashington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (Mo.) have voiced support for allowing Congress to earmark funds again.

They think that if individual members of Congress have more power to direct federal resources back to their home states and districts, they are more likely to agree to bipartisan compromises and pass bills.

A spokeswoman for Shelby noted that the rules package passed by the new House Democratic majority did not include a prohibition on congressionally directed spending.

“I think it’s not coincidental that the appropriations system and other legislative [process] dramatically deteriorated in their ability to produce a result at the same time that the Congress stopped directing the administration as to how money should be spent,” said Blunt, who also chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

One of the strongest proponents of earmarks is House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse conservatives voice concerns over minority rights during remote hearings House slated to vote on FISA before end of the month House Rules Committee approves remote voting during pandemic MORE (D-Md.), who like Pelosi served as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Hoyer says earmarks or congressionally directed spending should be allowed, albeit with reforms to make it tougher to secure shady deals for lobbyists or lawmakers’ personal gain.

“I strongly support restoring Congressionally directed spending with the reforms that Democrats put in place when we previously had the majority to ensure transparency and accountability,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Hoyer noted that when Democrats controlled the House from 2007 to 2010, they adopted reforms to prevent a return to the scandals of Abramoff’s days.

“Those reforms included eliminating projects going to for-profit entities, requiring members to certify that they had no financial interest in their requests, and ensuring that members post all of their requests along with a justification for each project on their congressional websites,” he said.

Hoyer said he and his Democratic colleagues will be “discussing a path forward” in the weeks ahead.

But while there is growing enthusiasm in the House for bringing back earmarks, some Senate Republicans remain skeptical.

“I don’t think there is sentiment among [Senate] Republicans to change our rules and we’re in the majority. I think it’s something that a lot of our members feel strongly about,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (S.D.).

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerBipartisan senators seek funding for pork producers forced to euthanize livestock Top Georgia Republican endorses Doug Collins Senate bid Senators balance coronavirus action with risks to health MORE (R-Neb.) said, “I would have to hear a very, very compelling argument before I could support earmarks and I haven’t heard that right now.”

But she acknowledged, “we have people in our conference who talk about it.”

A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse Democrats object to Trump sending ventilators to Russia House-passed relief bill excludes lobbyists from Paycheck Protection Program House defeats effort to prevent stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants MORE (D-N.Y.) said his boss supports “congressionally directed spending in line with Congress’s Article I powers.”

But Lowey’s aide said a “bipartisan and bicameral agreement will be needed.”