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Roll Call

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.

One Member argued that unless the definition of an earmark is clarified, only chairmen, who have access to the White House and other powerful players, could make real decisions about appropriations.

Several appropriators acknowledged the ban would make Republicans more reliant on the executive branch, and Rogers said he would watch White House spending closely.

“All of these agencies have their own rules with which they allocate funds, and I’m assuming when the administration makes a decision of spending their money that they will do it on merit instead of on politics,” he said.

But as much pain as the House Republicans will go through trying to implement this across-the-board ban within their own ranks, the earmark moratorium will face another hurdle as bills go to a conference committee. Senate Democrats have declined to join the ban pledged by Senate Republicans.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, who also sits on the spending panel, noted that unlike the House ban, the Senate GOP’s resolution is nonbinding.

“Each individual Senator has to make his own decision,” the Tennessean said, adding that he has pledged to steer clear of earmarks except in state emergencies.

He added that he has not pledged to oppose bills with earmarks in them and that he expects the moratorium to be temporary.

“That’s just a statement that I’ve made on my own practice as a Senator for the next two years while we clean up the process,” Alexander said of his position. “And then after that, I fully expect us to get back to our normal responsibility, which is to appropriate dollars where they should go.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) acknowledged the conference committees would be “a real challenge” since Senate Democrats, and possibly some Republicans, may be willing to live with earmarks sometimes.

Said Rogers: “We are dead-set opposed to earmarks and we will fight them every inch of the way.”

But Senate Democrats expressed doubt that House Republicans would be able to present a united front.

“I think they talk a big game, and the reality will be they redefine what an earmark is,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Plus, Democrats expect some skepticism that Republicans will be content with White House spending choices. “The administration will make all decisions about what kind of infrastructure projects will be funded in the country,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a longtime appropriator. “You would think that Members of the House and Senate probably know best about the priorities of the states and regions.”

One Republican House Member said it was only a matter of time before Members find a way around the ban.

“Build a better rat trap, you just get smarter rats,” the lawmaker said.

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