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Earmark Ban Needs House GOP

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. John McCain has long opposed earmarks for spending. He’s confident the GOP can enforce a ban on the practice.

Republicans will have only themselves to blame next year if earmarks continue popping up in federal spending bills, given that Members on both sides agree that the party clearly has the power to end the controversial practice in the 112th Congress.

“I think it’s very clear that we can stop earmarks,” longtime anti-earmark crusader Sen. John McCain said. “That’s the message of the election and people will recognize that.”

But with uneven levels of commitment to end the practice between the House and Senate GOP, and disagreements within both about what defines an earmark, it’s not at all clear how easily it can be stopped.

The Arizona Republican and his supporters may still encounter some stiff resistance in the Senate, and not just from Senate Democrats who overwhelmingly support the practice of letting lawmakers direct federal spending to individual projects, as long as it’s combined with transparency.

Senate Republican leaders were reluctant converts to the anti-earmark campaign, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — an earmark defender and appropriator — only agreeing to endorse the nonbinding moratorium when it was clear he could not win the Nov. 16 caucus vote.

As a result, Senate Republicans are expecting most of the enforcement for the ban to come from the chamber that started it: the House. 

“The House is going to be the initiator on appropriations bills,” said retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is an appropriator. “It’s pretty evident they’re going to be very stringent on that issue, so I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of earmarks floating around this place next year.”

Although House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to extend their moratorium for the entire 112th Congress last month, they are only beginning to hammer out the details of how this ban will be implemented.

House Republican appropriators met Tuesday to discuss what the committee responsibilities will be in the post-earmark era.

“It was very much a ‘we need to stick together’” message, said newly appointed appropriator Rep. Jeff Flake. “We have a mandate; we’re going to cut spending to pre-stimulus levels.”

The Arizona Republican said incoming House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told Members to begin crafting a rescission bill that will hit the floor in the early months of the 112th Congress.

“We have an earmark ban and we are going to enforce it,” Flake said. 

But some Members argue the moratorium — which covers all earmarks including nonprofit entities as well as tax and tariff breaks — is too broad and must be refined to avoid a system where only the most powerful lawmakers are able to get projects.

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