House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey indicated Thursday that the word would come down as soon as the week of Feb. 3 on whether lawmakers would be able to seek special projects for their districts in next year’s spending bills.
The New York Democrat’s comments follow weeks of behind-the-scenes conversations during which she has begun to formulate how the House might bring back the controversial earmarking process during an election year. She’s also sought to assuage fears from Democrats in swing districts who have concerns about how the practice could impact them in November.
“We are just having discussions and we’ll see the response next week,” Lowey said.
Making a decision next week would set the stage for the beginning of the annual appropriations process, which is slated to kick off Feb. 10 when President Donald Trump sends his fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress.
Any return of earmarks, however limited, would represent the first time since 2011 that lawmakers have a more direct hand in determining where federal funding goes. That was the year House Republicans wrote a prohibition into their conference rules, and senators on both sides of the aisle also began observing an earmark moratorium.
After Democrats regained the House last January, they had a similar conversation about possibly bringing back earmarks, before opting against it. But party leaders have now rebranded the special line items as “community project funding” in an effort to try to restore lawmakers’ “power of the purse,” while holding discussions over the past few weeks within the Democratic Caucus.
Lowey said Thursday that the time for discussion was fast coming to an end. “People come over and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and at some point it’ll be too late,” she said. “We’ll see where we are next week.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said Tuesday he didn’t think Republicans in his chamber would agree to lift their conference’s earmark ban. That could cause problems later this year when Democrats ultimately conference their spending bills with the Senate, if that chamber leaves its ban in place. That’s why some House lawmakers have cautioned a restoration of “community project funding” won’t work unless Republicans go along.