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Are Earmarks Really Dead?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Toomey authored the most recent earmark ban for Senate Republicans, which they adopted at an organizational meeting earlier this month.

“We have taken an approach that I think is designed to be more of a public relations thing: You got to convince the public we’re cutting the budget,” she said after the GOP voted on the issue. “We are not cutting spending. We’re letting the executive branch determine the priorities.”

The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, widely known for his zealous defense of the practice, argued that because of the state’s remote location, sparse population and wide swaths of federal land, earmarks are essential to Alaska’s economic development.

On the House side this month, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, considered offering a proposal that would have allowed for earmarks, but he decided against it after realizing it would not be adopted, according to a source in the room.

The amendment would allow earmarks if the person requesting it was identified, the project was initiated in committee and the recipient was a government entity.

Though Democrats generally have supported the earmarking process, not all are on board. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., opposes earmarks and has worked with Toomey to pass a legislative ban, for which she intends to continue to advocate.

“When I got to the Senate six years ago, the abuse of taxpayer dollars through earmarks was rampant,” she said in an emailed statement. “We’ve come a long way, and I look forward to holding the line against reviving this deeply problematic practice. I plan to keep pushing for stronger accountability by permanently banning earmarks altogether.”

Toomey, who said he hasn’t spoken with McCaskill since before the Senate recessed for the elections, stressed that he plans to continue to push for a legislative ban.

“I don’t assume that this [earmark issue] will not resurface,” Toomey said. “I’ll continue to support a legislative ban.”

The success of the earmark ban has come through changes to internal party rules, not through legislation, which suggests senators, at least, are not ready to make the situation permanent.

In February, the Senate voted 40-59 against an earmark ban amendment offered by Toomey and McCaskill.

Getting earmarks back into legislation won’t be easy. Sarah Binder, a congressional historian at George Washington University, said restoring the practice would take a political shift away from divided government.

“I think they are hard to bring back unless both parties hold hands and decide” they are going to bring back earmarks, she said.

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