A controversial budgeting practice banned a decade ago could get new life in the House as a tool to circumvent federal bureaucracies, but not everyone agrees it’s a good idea. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate have chosen to keep their ban on earmarks in place for at least the next two years.
Shortly after the November election, Republicans began chattering in Washington about bringing back the discredited practice of “earmarking.” In its worst days, that was a seniority-based budgeting gimmick that allowed lawmakers favored by the establishment to send dollars to politically-driven causes back home in their districts.
Among the worst excesses was the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, publicity over which brought about rules banning earmarks altogether.
After the 2016 election handed the GOP control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the lower chamber’s Republican caucus was poised to lift the ban in a closed-doors session led by U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) and others.
That effort fizzled after an outcry from conservative watchdog organizations like Heritage Action and Club for Growth.
Heritage Action’s Michael Needham said at the time that restoring earmarks would be a “rebuke” to voters who demand transparency in government.
“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. 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.”
Texas Republican Pete Sessions of Dallas heads the powerful Rules Committee, which has been tasked by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) with exploring whether the chamber’s Republican Conference should address the practice. A decision could be made as early as this summer, and Sessions says hearings would take place in public.
Sessions’ communications director says the new House effort is a response to the politicization of the federal bureaucracy by the Obama Administration.
“The Chairman does not want to return to the days of abuse under the old system,” wrote Caroline Boothe in response to questions from Texas Scorecard. “However, federal agencies and unelected bureaucrats have used this tool to direct funding away from places like Texas and some have suggested that the Obama Administration overly politicized funding decisions.”
Boothe said it is up to Congress “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely or not at all.”
“It is important to note that most current proposals surrounding congressionally directed spending are targeted and for specific purposes such as Army Corps of Engineers projects and include various transparency requirements.”
Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, is not convinced that the intentions of those pushing for earmarks are as noble as they claim.
“Call it what you will — it is a recipe for pork-barrel spending and corruption,” he wrote earlier this month in an article for National Review critical of the renewed push. “The lure of earmark money provides an opportunity for bipartisan dishonesty.”
Boothe says that Sessions wants to hear from all sides to ensure the House has a policy “consistent with the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution and include necessary safeguards to prevent abuse.”
“House Republicans should take a cue from their Senate counterparts on earmarks,” said the Club’s president, former U.S. Rep. David McIntosh. “Now, House Republicans should do the same: Keep the ban on earmarks.”