House GOP to vote on bringing back earmarks

House GOP to vote on bringing back earmarks
© Greg Nash

Three GOP congressmen have issued an amendment to the House Republican Conference rules that would overturn the ban on earmarks.

The amendment is drawing swift opposition from conservative groups like Heritage Action for America, which called pet project spending “the lubricant that empowers politicians to cut bad deals.”

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Republican Reps. John Culberson of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Tom Rooney of Florida filed the amendment, which will be voted on through a secret ballot during the GOP leadership elections.

The amendment chips away at the earmark ban instituted by House Republicans in 2011 —later adopted by the full chamber — and would “restore Congress’s constitutional duty and allow the more effective use of the power of the purse in a way that is transparent and responsible,” according to a copy of the amendment obtained by The Hill.

The provision would allow lawmakers to direct specific funds to some federal agencies — such as the Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Reclamation — and state and local governments. It would continue to ban Congress from earmarking federal cash for recreational facilities, museums or parks.

The proposal would require members sponsoring earmarks to be identified. The earmarks would have to be initiated during the committee process, and they could not increase total spending for any fiscal year. 

The amendment was first reported by the Daily Signal, the news arm of The Heritage Foundation.

"Americans in both parties are fed up with the cronyism and corruption in Washington, and seven days ago they delivered a stunning message to the nation's ruling class,” said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham in a statement on Monday night. 

“Any attempt to roll back the longstanding ban on congressional earmarks — the lubricant that empowers politicians to cut bad deals — would amount to a rebuke of those voters. Americans deserve an honest, transparent government that is working for everyone, not simply doling out favors to a well connected few,” he said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long talked about a repeal of the ban, saying that Congress should reassert its right to specifically allocate money, rather than handing that responsibility over to federal agencies.

“It always perplexed me as to why we would want unelected government bureaucrats making decisions about how we spend money in our districts rather than people who were elected by the people of the United States," Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said earlier this year.

Rooney first floated his own solo proposal during a House Rules Committee hearing in September, gaining praise from members of both parties on the panel. It honed in on only allowing earmarks on projects run by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"I find your idea thought-provoking and engaging," said Rep. Steve Stivers, (R-Ohio), who was leading the hearing. 

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), added, “I wish to goodness that would happen.” 

The fate of the amendments could be decided by Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFive takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE (R-Wis.), who has been critical of earmarks. 

“Earmarks aren’t inherently problematic, but when former members of Congress are in jail for selling earmarks, there’s something seriously wrong with the process,” he says in a section of his website.  

Former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerEx-GOP lawmaker joins marijuana trade group Crowley, Shuster moving to K Street On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 MORE (R-Ohio) had been fiercely protective of the ban, and some members may see his absence from Congress as an opening to revive the practice.

Lobbyists and lawmakers say earmarks also help facilitate dealmaking by allowing members to get something for their districts in a piece of legislation with provisions they might not otherwise support.  

Prior to the 2011 moratorium, earmarks had been big business for K Street firms with corporate and non-profit clients alike. Congressional sponsors of legislative earmarks had to be identified, in addition to the amount they had requested and for what purpose or entity.

"Americans are tired of politicians in Washington using their power to rig the system for special interests,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the president of Senate Conservatives Action.

“It would be a major mistake for Republicans to bring back earmarks as their first act after the elections. It would be a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who just voted to drain the swamp,” he added, using a common campaign refrain from President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE.

Prior to the moratorium, most members used the earmark system to allocate money for pet projects. Critics seized on frivolous projects to attack the system, and Republicans opted to ban earmarks when they won the House in 2010. 

Members of the House and Senate received $2.55 billion in earmarks in the fiscal year before earmarks were prohibited, according to a tally of disclosure data from the Center for Responsive Politics.  

“This is a test of whether Republicans are listening to the American people,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth. “It’s been barely a week since voters sent a resounding rejection of Washington insider politics, and yet House Republicans are already on the verge of proving they’re tone deaf."