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 SchakowskyHouse Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Lawmaker calls for hearing into MLB cheating scandal Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Overnight Health Care: Trump restores funding for Texas program that bars Planned Parenthood | Trump to attend March for Life | PhRMA spent record on 2019 lobbying Key House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week 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 MurkowskiTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses Collins walks impeachment tightrope 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses 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 TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial 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 BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats 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 BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE and former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials 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 ShelbySenate fails to get deal to speed up fight over impeachment rules Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' MORE (Ala.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Nadler gets under GOP's skin Grassley signs USMCA, sending it to Trump's desk 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 Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules House revives agenda after impeachment storm House poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate 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 ThuneNo. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' MORE (S.D.).

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerThe Hill's Morning Report — Impeachment unknowns await returning lawmakers Pressure builds over impeachment impasse in Senate Trump faces pivotal year with Russia on arms control 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 LoweyMixed feelings on war power limits: Lawmakers and vet candidates US officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  House revives agenda after impeachment storm 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.”