Policy

Ryan: Earmarks Discussion Dead for This Congress

Speaker disappoints Republicans who want to bring back pork

Paul D. Ryan has spoken: pork will not be back this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Talk of bringing back local project earmarks in spending bills that has been bubbling within the GOP conference for the past two years won’t advance any further for now, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday.

“I don’t doubt that the next organizing conference for the next Congress will probably wrestle with this issue,” Ryan said.

The Wisconsin Republican, who is retiring at the end of this session and has been vocal at times about his opposition to earmarks, said the conversation within the House Republican Conference about bringing back earmarks is mostly about which branch of government has the authority to determine how federal dollars are spent.

“The challenge is when we had it before, it was a corrupt system,” Ryan said, noting his experience with earmarking was an “abusive process.” He suggested there are valid reasons for allowing some earmarks for projects that don’t involve private sector and for-profit entities.

“It really does, at the end of the day, come down to fiscal conservatism, transparency, accountability and what is the proper role of a government and the role between the executive and legislative branches,” Ryan said. “We haven’t finished settling that debate.”

[Some in Congress Still Have a Taste for Pork]

That debate has been ongoing since January 2011, when then-House Speaker John A. Boehner oversaw the ban going into force as part of the House GOP rules package.

Those conversations and grumbling about Congress losing some of its spending authority to the executive branch came to a head in November 2016 as Republicans gathered behind closed doors to set out rules for the 115th Congress.

Florida Rep. Tom Rooney, who is also retiring, proposed an amendment that would allow earmarks for Army Corps of Engineers projects. Rep. John Culberson of Texas offered a more sweeping version that would have allowed funds to flow to specific projects backed by federal agencies and state and local governments, but not private sector firms.

Ryan had to step in during that meeting to prevent those provisions from being added to the House Republicans rule package for the 115th Congress. At the time he promised a floor vote on the issue during the first quarter of 2017. But that never happened.

Instead, GOP leaders tasked House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas with looking into the issue and producing a report for House Republicans. Sessions hoped to complete the report by the Fourth of July recess in 2017. Sessions missed that deadline, but Sessions said at the time he hoped to present recommendations before this year began.

That goal evaporated too. But Sessions held a series of hearings in the Rules Committee in January to examine the issue that many Republicans are trying to re-brand as “congressionally directed spending.”

Sessions has said he is still writing a report and will present recommendations to House Republicans at some point this year.

But Ryan’s comments on Thursday indicate that regardless of what those recommendations are, they will not take root while he is still speaker.

Of course, if Democrats regain control of the House in January, the conversation will rest solely at their feet. Because the ban was written only in House GOP rules, Democrats will either have to go back to pre-2011 rules or determine a different way to go about earmarking.

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