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Tensions Rise Over Earmarks

Comity Wanes on Appropriations

Correction Appended

While Democratic Members waited in line last week to publicly declare the urgency and legitimacy of their transportation and housing earmark requests, not a single Republican joined them.

That’s because aside from a few rogue Republicans, Democrats will be the only House Members seeking earmarks in this year’s spending bills, a fact that is threatening to create a highly charged partisan atmosphere on the House Appropriations Committee, a panel that traditionally has been a haven of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized Congress.

The Democrats who testified at the Thursday hearing were eager to detail the importance of their projects to their districts. Rep. Laura Richardson (Calif.), for example, described a $2 million earmark request for a “Bridge to Everywhere,” while Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) touted the “totally open process” that she’d embraced to vet all earmark requests her office received.

But the hearing, which Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Chairman John Olver (D-Mass.) called specifically to review earmark requests, highlighted an awkward reality for the majority party: House Republicans’ one-year ban on earmarks has left Democrats as essentially the sole purveyors of pork-barrel projects, which the GOP is using to try to gain political advantage ahead of the midterm elections.

Although he did not challenge any of the earmarks Democrats described at the hearing, subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) later acknowledged that such sessions highlight the contrast that Republicans are trying to draw through their self-imposed moratorium.

“I think right now, with the fiscal situation that we’re in, that if those dollars could be applied to the deficit, I think the American people would be more pleased with what’s going on,” Latham said.

Democrats barred earmarks benefiting for-profit companies last month, but House Republicans a day later adopted a broader one-year moratorium on all earmarks in spending bills, authorizing bills and tax measures. A few Republicans have refused to abide by the ban, but for the most part GOP Members have withdrawn all earmark requests.

Subcommittee on Homeland Security ranking member Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) predicted that the GOP earmark ban would make the committee more partisan and even suggested that might be a good thing.

“The political pressure will be to condemn the Democrats for continuing this wasteful spending,” Rogers said, adding that his staff would be scouring Democrats’ earmark requests. “We’ll be scrubbing them to make sure there’s no wasteful spending there.”

Rogers, who voted against the ban and has steered earmarks to his poor district in the past, said earmarks have no place in the Homeland Security spending bill.

Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) said the process could be more partisan this year but that it would depend “on what the Republican attitude is going to be.”

“The answer lies largely with our Republican colleagues,” Price said. “On the Democratic side, we’ve pushed a process of earmark reform, more transparency, more accountability that has greatly modified Republican practice. And now Republicans — feeling defensive about that, I suppose — are trying to one-up us with this moratorium, which throws out the baby with the bath water.”

For now, Price said, the absence of Republican earmarks would not influence how he approaches the process.

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