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Momentum Builds for Earmarks Return

December 7, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – A decade after Republicans, then in the majority in the House, banned them in their conference rules, the practice of Congressionally-directed spending — otherwise known as the use of earmarks — is poised for an almost certain comeback.

“I expect that the House will pursue transparent and accountable Congressionally-directed spending in the next Congress,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told The Well News on Friday.

“The House rules that are currently in place retain the transparency and accountability reforms made by House Democrats, and members of both sides of the aisle support restoring Congressionally-directed spending,” he said.

Hoyer has been leading the effort to restore earmarks almost from the moment House Republicans struck them down in 2011, and has made their resurrection one of his top priorities in the 117th Congress.

As he told The Well News; “I will be working with incoming Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, as well as the chairs of other relevant committees, on this effort, which is critical to reasserting Congress’s constitutional power of the purse and restoring the kind of comity we used to experience in the House.

“I will continue to discuss this matter with our members in the coming weeks,” Hoyer said.

For those not old enough to remember, the ban on earmarks was instituted by then-Speaker John Boehner as part of his drive to rein in government spending and restore trust in Congress after a wave of corruption scandals involving earmarks, including prison sentences for people like former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Though the Democrats controlled the Senate at the time, they soon followed House’s lead, mostly because Republicans in the minority, principally the late Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, and former Sen. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, wouldn’t let the issue go.

Better to give in, the reasoning purportedly went, then give Senate Republicans a compelling “good government” issue to run on in the next election.

But the debate over earmarks never really ended and over the years, both parties have revisited the issue.

Each time, opponents argued that bringing them back would revive a “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans last year added a permanent ban on earmarks to their conference rules, a move that was championed by Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, who is being touted for a possible White House run in 2024.

But over the years, Democrats and Republicans have grown more vocal with complaints the ban erodes Congress’s congressional authority over government spending.

In fact earmarks were an issue in the leadership elections last week in which DeLauro was elevated to the Appropriations chair in the next Congress, replacing retiring Rep. Nita Lowey.

During the contest, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Florida, another contender in the race for chair, said the ban on earmarks was and always has been little more than a “campaign messaging stunt.”

Echoing Hoyer, Wasserman Schultz wrote in a letter to colleagues, that “members best understand the needs of our communities.”

“The earmark ban ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats who are currently beholden to an erratic, lawless president,” she said.

For her part, DeLauro said at the time that it was premature to discuss the restoration of earmarks.

“It’s something the entire caucus — including newly elected members — want to be involved in after the election,” DeLauro said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing the views of all my colleagues as we review the current policy.”

Since her election last week, DeLauro has said she does support restoring some form of earmarked federal spending for local projects, telling the Connecticut Mirror that earmarks are an opportunity for “non-profits, state and local government” to make a case for spending priorities “that are community-based.”

Hoyer Working Hard to Spread His Message

The majority leader has been hard at work at reviving Congressionally-directed spending for months, testifying before both the House Rules Committee and the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on the issue, as well as having literally dozens of conversations with members on both sides of the aisle.

Hoyer has said in the past that he’s encountered overwhelming support for bringing back “transparent and accountable Congressionally-directed spending” and that members are united in their belief that they know their districts best and that it is their constitutional responsibility to be making these spending decisions.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee, said after Hoyer addressed the panel that he too believes “Congressionally-directed spending is something we should try to get back to … Not just because we know our districts better … but also because I think, if the past is any indication, that when people have skin in the game, when they know that passing certain bills will actually make a difference in their own districts, we tend to get more bipartisan support for things.”

Ranking Member Tom Cole, R-Okla., also threw his support behind reviving earmarks during the hearing.

“Let me emphasize, I speak only for myself, I don’t speak for my conference and I certainly don’t speak for my leadership, but my opinion is we lost an important tool [when earmarks were banned]. I think the majority leader is exactly right.

“Now, there’s no question there have been abuses here in the past, we have had members that went to prison for abusing this system … so that the idea of publishing them, making members accountable for them, and not having them be able to airdrop Congressionally-directed spending projects into conference bills, all those things make a lot of sense to me,” he said.

Earmarks, Cole said, are “controversial, I’ll grant you, but unquestionably valuable.”

Cole isn’t the only Republican to back a controlled, transparent return to Congressionally-directed spending.

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans, included a form of earmarks in the list of recommendations it released earlier this fall.

“What we developed is truly a framework, and it’s a recognition that one day, I think we all know and expect that congressionally directed spending would return,” the panel’s vice chairman, outgoing Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said.

Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., chairman of the committee, said that with guardrails against abuse, “community-focused grant programs” could help return some normalcy to the appropriations process.

Significant Reforms in Place

After abuses in the system were brought to light, the Democrats who controlled the House between 2007 and 2011 implemented significant reforms that made Congressionally-directed spending transparent and held members accountable for their requests.

According to Congressional staffers, speaking on background, these reforms made the system work and kept it honest.

Some of those reforms are included in the House Rules, and some of them were adopted by Committee chairs.

These reforms included:

  • Transparency/Online Posting. Members were required to post all requests on their official website, including the name and address of the proposed recipient, the amount requested, the purpose of the request, and why it was an appropriate use of taxpayer funds. (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2010)
  • Transparency/Financial Disclosure Statement. Members were required to send the Committee a letter stating that neither the member nor their spouse have a financial interest at the time of the request, which must be posted online at least 48 hours before a floor vote (House Rules, 2007)
  • Transparency/Bill Requirements. List of funded earmarks was made public at the earliest possible date – at subcommittee markup (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2010). In addition, each bill’s committee report included a list identifying each earmark and the member requesting it. (House Rules, 2007)
  • Caps. Earmarks were capped at 1% of the total discretionary budget and 50% of the amount provided for earmarks in 2006. (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2010)
  • Administration Review. Subcommittees shared earmark requests with the executive branch agencies for 20 days of technical review and vetting. (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2010)
  • Ban on For-Profit Earmarks. The Committee banned earmarks directed to for-profit entities (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2011). Previously such earmarks underwent a competitive bidding process (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2010, replaced FY2011).
  • Non-Profits. To address concerns over for-profits masquerading as non-profits, Inspectors General would have been required to audit at least 5% of all earmarks directed to non-profit entities. (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2011)
  • “One-Stop” Link. Established a Committee website that linked to all House Members’ appropriations earmark requests to help the public easily view them. (Adopted as Committee practice, FY2011)

In order to bring back Congressionally-directed spending, Hoyer has point out, there is no need to make any changes to the House Rules because the reforms that were included in the House Rules a decade ago are still there, and just as before, chairs can adopt the additional reforms that are not included in the House Rules.

The open question is whether Republican leadership in the House and, eventually, the Senate, will buy into the drive to bring earmarks back.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told The Hill last week that he hadn’t “given any real thought” to bringing back earmarks, though he was aware of Hoyer’s assertion that they’d be back in January.

“That’s a decision, obviously, the majority decided to make over there, and it will be interesting how the Republicans in the House respond to it,” McConnell said.

Over the weekend, The Well News reached out via email to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, Republican Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, and Republican Policy Committee Chair Gary Palmer, of Alabama, none of whom responded to a request for comment.

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