House

Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks

Bloomberg/Pool

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) unveiled a plan on Friday to restore a limited version of earmarks that would allow lawmakers to direct spending for special projects in their districts.

Republicans banned the practice of earmarks upon taking over the House majority in 2011 because of concerns about corruption.

But supporters of restoring the practice, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), argue that it allows members of Congress to more specifically direct spending and helps build broader support for appropriations bills.

A memo from DeLauro asserts that returning earmarks with reforms “restores balance between Congress and the Executive Branch on important decisions about how and where to spend taxpayer dollars.” 

“Allowing members of Congress to use their knowledge to direct funding to the worthiest projects in their communities brings Congress closer to fulfilling its Constitutional power of the purse,” the memo adds.

The restoration of earmarks, as outlined by DeLauro, would include limitations to ensure safeguards from abuses that led to scandals over earmarks in the years before House Republicans instituted the moratorium.

Under DeLauro’s plan, earmarks — which Democrats are calling “community project funding” — would only be permitted if lawmakers adhere to requirements like providing evidence of “strong community support” and only request funding for up to 10 projects.

The funding could only go toward state and local grantees or eligible nonprofit organizations, and could not be directed to for-profit recipients. 

Lawmakers would have to certify that neither they nor their families have any financial interest in the projects. In addition, every project funding request would be posted publicly online with descriptions justifying the rationale. 

The Government Accountability Office would also be required to audit a sample of enacted earmarks to ensure that the funding was used for its original intent. 

Earmarks would be limited to one percent of discretionary funding.

Not everyone is on board with the idea of restoring the practice of earmarks. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus came out in opposition to restoring the spending practice.

“The old system was flawed, leading to corruption and coercion. Congress was right to stop the rampant earmark abuse and work towards a more transparent appropriations process. However, in attempting to correct this spending mechanism, we ceded too much power to the executive branch,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.

“Congress has become too comfortable with top-line appropriations, letting unelected bureaucrats determine our nation’s spending priorities. We cannot return to the old earmarks rules. However, Congress must reassert its Article I, Section 8 spending authority to control the budget,” he added.

But Hoyer said earlier this week that he has “talked to a lot of Republicans who I expect are going to be requesting earmarks for their districts.” 

“My view has been, that is the constitutional responsibility of the Congress of the United States and that members of Congress know their districts better than almost anybody else, and their judgment as to how we can invest in helping their districts is best made by the members, not by others,” Hoyer told reporters. 

The push to restore earmarks with reforms has been underway since the last session of Congress. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recommended allowing congressionally directed spending with reforms as a way to “reduce dysfunction” in the annual budget process.

A series of scandals in the mid-to-late 2000s led to scrutiny over the practice of lawmakers directing spending toward projects in their districts, such as Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) securing $223 million for the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in 2005 that would have connected a tiny island with the town of Ketchikan and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) accepting millions in bribes in return for directing tens of millions in funding toward defense contracts.

Cunningham served eight years in prison after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes. Former President Trump pardoned Cunningham in his final hours in office last month. 

Tags Appropriations Budget Don Young Donald Trump earmarks Rosa DeLauro spending bills Steny Hoyer

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