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 SchakowskyOvernight Health Care: CDC pushes for expanding HIV testing, treatment | Dem group launches ads attacking Trump on Medicare, Medicaid cuts | Hospitals, insurers spar over surprise bills | O'Rourke under pressure from left on Medicare for all O'Rourke faces pressure from left on 'Medicare for all' Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Dems push Pelosi on bill allowing federal funding of abortion | Key Republican says Dems left him out of drug pricing talks | Court upholds Ohio law to defund Planned Parenthood | Trump taps acting FDA chief MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHistory teaches that Nancy Pelosi is right about impeachment The politics and practicalities of impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms 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 RogersMomentum 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' GOP shrugs off Trump shutdown threat 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 MurkowskiJuan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget 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 rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left 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 TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification 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 BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history 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 BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE and former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain Trump: 'I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be' Santorum: Trump should 'send emails to a therapist' instead of tweeting 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 ShelbyFive takeaways from Trump's budget Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Trump unveils 2020 budget | Calls for cuts to NIH | Proposes user fees on e-cigs | Azar heads to Capitol to defend blueprint | Key drug price bill gets hearing this week Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight MORE (Ala.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms GOP senator disinvited to Republican event over vote against Trump's emergency declaration Trump keeps tight grip on GOP 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 HoyerHillicon Valley: Social media faces scrutiny after New Zealand attacks | YouTube removed 'tens of thousands' of shooting videos | DHS chief warns of state-backed cyber threats | House Dems plan April vote on net neutrality House to take up gender pay gap, Violence Against Women Act House Dems plan April vote on net neutrality bill 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 ThuneSenators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law GOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump We need a national privacy law that respects the First Amendment MORE (S.D.).

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel Fischer
College professor accused of vandalizing Nebraska GOP lawmaker's campaign signs Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal 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 LoweyBottom Line Left-wing Dems in minority with new approach to spending On The Money: Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution | US hits Russia with new sanctions | Dems renew push for contractor back pay | Lawmakers seek probe into undocumented workers at Trump businesses 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.”