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House Earmarks Ban May Be Tested in Writing Water Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Shuster says the Senate water bill gives too much power to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The House’s 3-year-old ban on earmarks may be put to the test in the coming weeks, as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee writes its authorization of flood control, navigation and environmental restoration programs.

Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the Senate-passed water bill (S 601) already gives the Army Corps of Engineers too much power to select the projects that will be funded, and he has vowed to surrender no additional legislative authority.

“I’m not willing to cede one more inch to this or any executive branch,” Shuster told the Transportation Construction Coalition, an industry group that is holding its annual legislative fly-in this week.

The catch is that designating specific projects for funding in the legislation — as Congress did in previous water bills — would run afoul of the earmarks prohibition. Committee aides and leaders, who are aiming to get a water bill to the floor by the end of the summer, are trying to figure out how to proceed.

Ultimately, this may require rethinking the earmark ban that was a cornerstone of the Republican’s 2010 electoral strategy and helped the party win back control of the House.

“Discussions are ongoing,” a Republican aide said. “But the consensus is the Senate’s bill gave back too much.”

The effort to write a water bill is forcing lawmakers to confront a fundamental contradiction of the ban on member-directed expenditures. While earmarks sometimes led to wasteful spending and gave disproportionate power to appropriators, the process also provided House members with some influence over how federal dollars were spent in their districts.

Without earmarks, it’s increasingly up to presidential appointees and their staffs to direct discretionary dollars to projects.

Last year, Congress managed to cobble together a surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) without earmarks — an effort that was helped by funding shortfalls that left little additional money for lawmakers to spread around. Most highway, bridge and transit funding is distributed to states under formula programs anyway, so earmarks always represented supplementary spending.

Water bills in the past have been different. Without formula programs to guide funding decisions, water resources bills have been collections of specific, congressionally designated Army Corps of Engineers projects.

Whether Shuster and fellow committee members are willing to fight the GOP’s tea party faction over the earmarks ban is uncertain. Lobbyists representing shippers, carriers and other waterways constituencies say it’s more likely that discussions will center on how to skirt the ban. That could mean a policy-heavy House bill to take to conference that doesn’t address specific projects.

“They’re having an uphill battle just convincing some members the federal government should be involved in transportation at all,” a lobbyist said.

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