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 SchakowskyOmar blasts Trump's comment about accepting foreign campaign dirt as 'un-American' House Dem cites transgender grandson in voting for Equality Act Dems plan 12-hour marathon Mueller report reading at Capitol MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown 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 RogersEnding AIDS requires US investment Momentum for earmarks grows with Dem majority On The Money: GOP shrugs off Trump shutdown threat | Trump warns Japan ties could sour over trade | US businesses add 163k workers in August | House GOP huddles on 'tax cut 2.0' 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 MurkowskiHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Klobuchar, Murkowski introduce legislation to protect consumer health data 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 McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund 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 cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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 BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump 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 BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump MORE and former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain#JohnMcCainDay trends on Trump's 73rd birthday #JohnMcCainDay trends on Trump's 73rd birthday New poll finds little GOP support for spending cuts to specific federal programs 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 ShelbyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (Ala.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal 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 HoyerThe case for congressional pay raises Approve USMCA before it's too late Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress 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 ThuneNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Trump's border funding comes back from the dead Public policy expert: US has become 'outlier' on immigration practices MORE (S.D.).

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle Steve King denied seat on Air Force One for Trump trip to Iowa: report 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 panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill as Senate lags House panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill as Senate lags On The Money: Democrats set stage for next shutdown fight | House panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill | GOP senators, White House delay meeting on spending | Trump hits Fed over high interest rates 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.”