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Members Rethink Earmark Ban

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Rep. Jack Kingston co-sponsored legislation that would have called for a moratorium on earmarks and authorized a bipartisan select committee to define an earmark, suggest how to eliminate last-minute earmarks to bills and explain the proper use of Congressionally directed spending.

House appropriators from both parties are starting to push for a re-examination of the Republican-imposed earmark ban.

Democrats and Republicans alike are concerned that the ban will be enforced too broadly, and they want to revisit the definition of what an “earmark” is under House rules. The earmark ban hasn’t really been an issue for Members since it was adopted last November, but appropriators fear they may run into problems as they look to tackle 2012 spending measures and other project-based bills.

Rep. Steven LaTourette, an appropriator who led an unsuccessful push to clarify the definition of an earmark under House rules when the GOP voted to adopt the earmark ban in November, said he thinks there is a “legitimate debate” looming about what an earmark is; the Ohio Republican said the current definition is inadequate.

“Everybody’s decided they’re going to run against earmarks, without necessarily knowing what an earmark is. ... I think you can say earmarks are bad, as long as we know what an earmark is, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” said LaTourette, who is close to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Without clarity, LaTourette predicted, Members will have a tough time trying to pass some legislation: “It’s not clear. If you look at a couple of bills around here — the Water Resources Development Act, the Energy-water appropriations bill — they’re all earmarks.”

Earmarks have divided House Republicans, with appropriators and veteran Members among those most reluctant to embrace a ban. When Republicans took control of the House in January, they decided not to enter what would been a contentious debate over altering the definition of an earmark. House rules define an earmark as “a specific amount of ... spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific state, locality or Congressional district.” 

GOP leaders are suggesting the Conference as a whole doesn’t want to revisit the issue. Spokesmen for Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) both said Monday that the ban is settled.

“The House Republican Conference has adopted an earmark moratorium. Period,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.

Still, several GOP appropriators echoed LaTourette’s sentiment that lawmakers needed a clearer sense of what is included in the ban before they move forward on legislation that funds water, roads and infrastructure projects.

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