As they try to reclaim the ethical high ground during a difficult stretch, House Democratic leaders are considering a dramatic move: declaring a party-wide ban on earmarks this year.
The idea, floated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a leadership huddle Tuesday, is for House Democrats to outflank their Republican counterparts, who have mulled and rejected such a moratorium in recent years.
The discussion was brief and inconclusive, sources with knowledge of the session said. Leaders decided they needed to explore it further with Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). But if top Democratic brass decides to embrace the ban, it would likely have far-reaching consequences and meet stiff resistance from some corners of the Democratic Caucus that cherish earmarks as a constitutionally protected legislative prerogative and a political necessity in an increasingly hostile environment for incumbents.
For the current fiscal year alone, members of both parties in both chambers secured 9,499 earmarks worth a total of $15.9 billion, according to a study by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Democratic proposal in part reflects a calculation by leaders that their earmarks could get scrapped anyway. With the Senate struggling to handle even routine business, House leaders believe their spending bills might well end up tangled in an end-of-year morass in the other chamber, leaving their projects on the cutting room floor as lawmakers roll spending measures into a single package.
Why fight the pain and take that hit when most of these bills arent even going to the presidents desk? one leadership aide said.
No leader raised strong objections to the idea last week, sources said. But Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) argued that if the majority pursues the ban, it needs to be wholesale, shutting off the targeted spending for both public and private entities.
A decision on the matter would likely need to happen quickly earmark requests are due to the Appropriations panel by March 19. But some aides said leaders have some wiggle room on the timeline since the spending-bill-writing process wont kick into high gear until later this spring.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Republicans would welcome the policy. For more than two years, weve been asking House Democrats to join us in an earmark moratorium and real earmark reform, he said in a statement. I hope they are finally ready to get serious about ending their out-of-control spending spree, which is scaring the hell out of the American people.
The discussion among Democratic leaders came at the top of what was a damaging week on the ethics front. Leaders at the time were in the middle of dealing with the crisis surrounding Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) as he tried to hang on to his Ways and Means gavel after an ethics admonishment. Facing a full-blown collapse of support among junior Democrats, Rangel surrendered his chairmanship Wednesday morning.