GOP Battles Earmark Breakup

Leaders Still Vexed Over Earmark Moratorium

Posted March 6, 2009 at 6:01pm

A long-standing GOP dispute over earmarks has percolated to the top of the House Republican ranks, with leaders embroiled in a behind-the-scenes disagreement over whether to self-impose a ban on the practice in the 111th Congress.

Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) held a closed-door meeting on Thursday evening with members of the elected leadership committee to try to hammer out their differences on the controversial subject. Some in leadership are calling for an earmark moratorium, while others fear such a move would be too divisive within the Conference.

The GOP leaders urging caution may have reason to be concerned. As recently as November 2008, the House Republican Conference rejected an amendment to its internal rules — proposed by Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) — that would have stopped earmark requests until Feb. 16, 2009.

Nevertheless, Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) maintained in Thursday’s leadership meeting that the earmark moratorium, similar to the one pushed by the Republican Study Committee under then-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) in the 110th Congress, was a necessary, bold move that would show the party’s commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Although few of the members of House Republican leadership still request earmarks, several have asserted that the move would pit lawmakers against one another. They fear a repeat of last year’s family feud over the issue, according to several GOP sources familiar with the discussion.

Spokesmen for Boehner and Pence declined to discuss Thursday’s meeting, pointing to their policies of keeping closed-door conversations between Members private.

At the heart of the debate is the unreleased report from the Republican Earmark Reform Committee, which was appointed by Boehner in December 2008 to come up with a comprehensive “gold standard— for Members to measure whether projects under their consideration were appropriate.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), whom Boehner tapped to run the group, told Roll Call last month that she hoped to have the report released by mid-February. She said the group would use the suggestions that Republicans sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in January 2008 as a foundation on which to build their new recommendations.

One GOP source who had seen pieces of a recent draft of the report described it as a rehash of what was submitted in the 110th Congress. This source dismissed it as unenforceable since neither the House Democrats nor Senators of either party had plans to put forth similar rules.

Last year’s GOP proposal, which was derided by Democrats as a political ploy, included a ban on “monuments to me— or earmarks named after a sitting Member and “air dropped— earmarks, or those inserted into bills at the last minute. It also called for increased transparency over the earmark process.

“Cathy’s worked hard, and I think they’ve almost given her an impossible task,— said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a senior appropriator and earmark supporter.

Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.), who serves on the 10-Member earmark committee with McMorris Rodgers, said a meeting with leadership to discuss the panel’s proposal was set for today, but he declined to give any further details.

“We have all signed off on a proposal,— Wamp said.

Several aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned the wisdom of resurrecting the Conference’s earmark debate now.

One GOP aide said the focus should be on internal battles between Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration’s efforts to fulfill their campaign promises to combat wasteful spending.

“There is no reason for us to kill ourselves and muddy the water,— the aide said.

In the meantime, rank-and-file Members are becoming impatient.

“Several members of the Conference think that leaders should lead and make a decision for the Conference,— said one GOP Member, who requested anonymity.

Simpson said the Conference might need to simply vote on whether they want to keep the practice of earmarking.

“I’m tired of doing this symbolic stuff,— he said. “It’s kind of like a game — who’s tougher on earmarks, us or them? … I’m really tired of this debate.—

A spokeswoman for McMorris Rodgers said: “The committee has received a lot of input and ideas on how to increase transparency and accountability in the earmark process. However, the report isn’t finished yet, but should be soon.—

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.