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 SchakowskyDemocrats request info on Google-Ascension partnership Drag queen attends first public Trump impeachment hearing Progressives ramp up fight against Facebook MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul Five things to know about Tuesday's impeachment hearings McConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' 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 RogersTrump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid 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 MurkowskiKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Impeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP Hillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first 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 McConnellOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul McConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Former Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled 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 senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' 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 BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director 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 BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE and former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainConservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters Donald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble 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 ShelbyOn The Money: House passes monthlong stopgap | Broader spending talks stall | Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns | Progressives ramp up attacks on private equity House passes stopgap as spending talks stall The Hill's Morning Report - Week 2: House impeachment witnesses pick up the pace MORE (Ala.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule 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 passes stopgap as spending talks stall This week: Round 2 of House impeachment inquiry hearings Lawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms 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 ThuneOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul Lobbying World Top GOP senator: Drug pricing action unlikely before end of year MORE (S.D.).

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Female lawmakers make bipartisan push for more women in politics at All In Together gala Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden 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 LoweyOn The Money: House passes monthlong stopgap | Broader spending talks stall | Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns | Progressives ramp up attacks on private equity House passes stopgap as spending talks stall Key GOP senator: 'We need a breakthrough' on spending talks 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.”