A day after House Democrats announced a ban on earmarks for private companies, their Republican counterparts hope to dramatically up the ante with a unilateral prohibition on all targeted spending projects.
If approved, the Republican policy would restrict GOP lawmakers from sponsoring any earmarks at all — broadening the Democratic ban to cover earmarks for nonprofit entities and tax and tariff breaks approved through the Ways and Means Committee.
"When Republicans take back the House, we will rein in out-of-control federal spending and bring fundamental change to the process by which Congress spends American taxpayers' money," according to a statement from Republican leaders.
The minority is eager to protect what it views as a potent political advantage over Democrats on spending. And many — including an apparently united GOP leadership — are rallying behind the effort to one-up the Democrats on earmarks.
But it is not clear whether the proposal can gather support from a majority of House Republicans, the threshold for adopting it as a Conference-wide policy.
Republicans are set to huddle Thursday to vote on the plan.
House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, framed their new policy as the latest addition to an already robust record of ethics reforms. The party has been trying to get back on offense on the issue since a one-two punch of scandals — Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D-N.Y.) ethics wrist-slap and the allegations that then-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) sexually harassed staffers — sent them reeling in recent weeks.
"Over the last three years, we fought to replace a culture of corruption with a new direction of transparency and accountability, including earmark reforms in the last Congress," Pelosi said in a statement, adding that the new ban will "ensure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars by the federal government across all agencies."
But the earmarking activity of certain House Democrats remains a vulnerability for the party. Rep. Peter Visclosky (Ind.) is under investigation by the Justice Department for his ties to the PMA Group, a now-shuttered lobbying shop that focused on winning defense industry projects and was a top source of campaign cash for senior appropriators.
And while the House ethics committee recently cleared him and six other lawmakers in a related investigation, that probe has come under fire from ethics reform groups that charge it wasn't thorough enough. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of earmarks, plans to force the issue on Thursday with a privileged resolution that would require the ethics committee to detail its look into the case.
The House Democratic rank and file appeared Wednesday to swallow the earmark ban without much resistance. Some veteran lawmakers raised objections in a closed-door meeting but indicated they would support leadership's decision, a source in the room said.
Under the Democratic proposal, the House Appropriations panel will also require audits of at least 5 percent of all earmarks directed to nonprofit entities. And in lieu of earmarks, the Defense Department would set up a program to fund projects that could go to for-profit businesses, particularly startups.
Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said the new policy was not intended to be a one-year experiment but a long-term practice.
The vast majority of earmarks, however, already go to nonprofits and would not be affected.
A handful of newer Members argued the policy does not go far enough. Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) said he is one of three House Democrats who forgo the projects altogether and favors a blanket ban. And sophomore Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who is running for Senate, said in a statement he is prepared to force a floor vote on such a prohibition.
But Democratic leaders made clear they view the partial ban as an appropriate compromise between necessary reform and protecting the constitutional rights of lawmakers to direct spending.
"The earmarks do not make a very big difference in the fiscal soundness picture," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday. "It's important, and we have to find savings wherever we can. But the 3 percent, for example, that probably would still be there is the difference between a president and a king. Members are reluctant to give all the authority — which is vested in the Constitution in the Congress of the United States, the power to appropriate — to yield all of that to the executive branch."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the announcement a "positive step forward for earmark reform." But he warned that without similar action from the Senate, "campaign cash will just flow a little more heavily to the Senate side of the Capitol, and for-profit earmarks will remain alive and well." And Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) signaled little interest in following suit. He said the decision was not in "the best interests of the Congress or the American people."
House Republicans have discussed the idea of an earmark moratorium several times since they lost the majority in 2006. But the annual and traditionally divisive internal debates have yet to yield any lasting policy changes.
In November 2008, Republicans rejected a proposal offered by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to freeze earmark requests until February 2009.
Boehner created a Republican Earmark Reform Committee and ordered it to develop standards and policies for House Republicans in December 2008.
The 10-member committee never released a report because it could not agree on a set of recommendations.
Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), who served on the committee, said the pressure on Republicans to do something bold was significantly higher than on their Democratic colleagues.
"Right or wrong, fair or not, it is a critical issue — more so for us, far more so for us than for the Democrats," Brady said.
But other Republicans blasted the proposal. Rep. Steven LaTourette (Ohio), an appropriator, called it "stupid."
"It's all about November," he said. "I could be OK with that position if it applied to the Senate, to the administration, to transportation, but you know, if this were such a hot issue, [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.]would be president of the United States."