Heavy hitters in House urge return of spending bill earmarks

Top Democrats want "safeguards" to protect against abuse of once-reviled practice

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., says rural communities don't have lobbyists to help steer federal funds their way. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., says rural communities don't have lobbyists to help steer federal funds their way. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 1, 2020 at 5:08pm

Two of the most influential House Democrats said Thursday that the chamber should bring back earmarks next year, saying a de facto prohibition on "congressionally directed spending" gives too much power to the executive branch.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the party whip and third-ranking Democrat, told the Rules Committee that earmarks should be restored with “safeguards” Democrats instituted in 2007 and expanded two years later.

Hoyer, Clyburn and others testifying on potential House rules changes for the 117th Congress said earmarks help lawmakers advocate for the needs of their districts and states.

“I represent many rural communities, each with its own challenges and needs,” said Clyburn, who served on Appropriations for eight years before taking a leave of absence starting in 2007. “These communities have limited resources and are unable to hire grant writers and lobbyists. What these communities have is a congressman.”

Earmarks have been banned in the House since 2011, when then-Speaker John Boehner, supported by a wave of newly-elected conservative members, added a prohibition to GOP rules.

Since the ban was never added to the House’s official rules, there wasn’t much for Democrats to do when they assumed control of the House again in January 2019.

Democrats haven’t brought back earmarks, however, opting to continue the unofficial ban during this session of Congress.

Hoyer and Clyburn received backing from Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., who has advocated restoring earmarks for years.

Cole, a senior appropriator, emphasized that he only spoke for himself, not the House GOP Conference or leadership. “My opinion is we lost an important tool,” he said.

Cole isn’t the only Republican to back a controlled, transparent return to earmarking. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans, included a form of earmarks in its list of recommendations.

[‘Fix Congress Committee’ launches framework for earmark revival]

“What we developed is truly a framework, and it’s a recognition that one day, I think we all know and expect that congressionally directed spending would return,” the modernization panel's vice chairman Tom Graves, R-Ga., said last week.

Modernization Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said Thursday that with guardrails against abuse, “community-focused grant programs” could help return some normalcy to the appropriations process.

Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who's running to become the top Democrat on House Appropriations, also spoke in support of earmarks.

She read off a list of changes to the process, including:

  • Prohibiting for-profit entities from receiving earmarks. 
  • Posting earmarks in the congressional record, the committee website and bill reports.
  • Establishing a searchable database that will be publicly available.
  • Requiring the Government Accountability Office to submit an annual audit on projects' public benefits and effectiveness.
  • Directing agency inspectors general to review annual spending bills for waste, fraud and abuse.
  • Enshrining earmark restrictions in the official House rules.
  • “We need to do this the right way,” Wasserman Schultz told the panel.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., appeared to be on board with bringing back earmarks, though he didn’t get into specifics about what restrictions could be implemented.

He suggested restoring the practice could make it easier to pass legislation.

“I think if the past is any indication, when people have skin in the game, when people know passing certain bills will actually make a difference in their district, we tend to get bipartisan support,” McGovern said.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.