In the year since Speaker Paul D. Ryan blocked his party’s effort to revive earmarks, a lot hasn’t happened.
There’s been no repeal of Obamacare and no border wall approval. Plans to fund the government are struggling to lift off.
For a Republican majority that controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there may be no better time to reconnect the old earmark pipeline that funnels money from spending bills straight to projects in lawmakers’ districts, giving voters a taste of what Congress can do for them.
At least that’s the view of some GOP members. But they also realize that resurrecting earmarks would mean a political high-wire act. For many Americans, earmarks symbolize the same Washington “swamp” culture of the Trump administration promised to eliminate.
Nothing dredges up swamp-filled memories like the “pay for play” days of the mid-2000s, which sent Jack Abramoff to prison and saw the “Bridge to Nowhere,” connecting mainland Alaska to a sparsely-populated island, turn into a public relations nightmare.
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“Even flirting with bringing back earmarks would be really bad politics,” said Tommy Binion, the Heritage Foundation’s director of congressional and executive branch relations.
When Ryan intervened against reviving earmarks in the days following Donald Trump’s election for fear it would fuel criticism, he promised to bring the issue out into the open early this year with a floor vote. To him, it was a matter of taking back the power of the purse from unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch and giving it back to legislators.
“We’re going to spend a good amount of time deliberating how best to do that,” he said in November 2016.
Early 2017 came and went. When nothing happened, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said he would hold a series of hearings before the July Fourth holiday. When that didn’t happen either, he assured action by the end of the year. Still, there’s no sign of movement.
Asked recently for an update, Sessions pointed to the tax bill as front-and-center for the House GOP, adding that earmark hearings would be “soon.”
“It has not gone away,” the Texas Republican said.
Old appropriations hands used to call earmarks the “glue that holds spending bills together.” But various lobbying scandals tainted the process and contributed to the GOP electoral washout in the 2006 midterms. Republicans under the leadership of former Speaker John A. Boehner eliminated the practice when they took back the House after the 2010 elections.
In the years since, gridlock and legislative “cliffs” have become standard, with fiscal policy stare-downs provoked by GOP hardliners elected in the tea party wave. Frustrated with the austerity that has marked the annual appropriations process since the 2011 debt-ceiling standoff, some Republicans say earmarks could make the process more tolerable.
A little help getting “pork” to local projects could also help snare the votes needed to pass legislative priorities, such as repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law signed by President Barack Obama.
The delay in addressing the topic isn’t due to any careful, behind-the-scenes negotiations about which experts should be invited to testify or how the report should be structured. Instead, intraparty fractures are to blame.
And the restriction on earmarks — or “congressionally directed spending,” as Republicans prefer to call it these days — isn’t written in the official House rules, but in the rules of the House GOP Conference.
Republicans would have to decide on their own, most likely in a closed-door meeting, to bring them back.
That would require a mostly unified House GOP, as there was last November. At the time, a majority of Republicans in the room were in favor of lifting the earmark ban, according to Oklahoma Republican and senior appropriator Tom Cole.
When asked about the level of support a year later, Cole said he thinks “there is plenty of sentiment for it inside the House.” Whether that’s enough to bring the issue up heading into the midterms remains to be seen.
“It’s touchier in an election year,” Cole said, adding he hopes there will be momentum.
Power of the purse
Ryan’s promise last year of a floor vote was contingent on the withdrawal of Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney’s proposal to allow earmarks on Army Corps of Engineers projects and a separate proposal from Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson to allow Congress to direct spending to local, state and federal projects.
For lawmakers from areas hard hit by natural disasters, earmarks could help direct money to projects they believe will help their districts recover faster.
Culberson, who represents a part of Texas heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey, says he may advocate for earmarks to come back before the next disaster supplemental spending bill moves forward.
Meanwhile, organizations such as Citizens Against Government Waste, which helped undermine the case for earmarks in the mid-2000s, have kept up the pressure.
Although earmarking is technically banned, there are still line items that amount to earmarks, said the group’s president, Tom Schatz. During the last fiscal year, there were 163 such items totaling $6.8 billion in appropriations bills, according to CAGW.
But the group, which produces an annual list of federal pork-barrel projects called “The Pig Book,” also admits that how it classifies earmarks differs from how Congress defines them.
For example, CAGW counts the $1 billion for military aircraft services in the fiscal 2017 Defense appropriations bill, even though the projects are not specific to a particular member’s district.
Schatz himself notes that even when earmarks were at their peak, the projects represented only about one-tenth of 1 percent of total government spending. Still, they could have an impact on where the roughly $1.07 trillion in discretionary spending is allocated through the appropriations process.
In fiscal 2006, “congressionally directed spending” based on CAGW’s definition ate up 3.4 percent of the total discretionary budget that year, not counting emergency spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and disaster relief.
The 10-year average, prior to the earmark ban, was about 2.5 percent of annual nonemergency appropriations, according to a Roll Call analysis. If that figure were applied to fiscal 2017 appropriations, earmarks would have eaten up about $20 billion more of last year’s spending bills, meaning less money to go around for more broadly shared priorities.
With lawmakers eyeing an end to federal “sequestration” which has constrained discretionary spending for the better part of this decade, additional support may build for restoring Congress’ “power of the purse.”
If Democrats make strong gains in the 2018 midterm elections, an earmark revival could become even more likely.
“I am not among those who believe it is a good idea for Congress to hand over its power of the purse to unelected and unaccountable bureaucracies,” the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Patrick J. Leahy, said in a statement. “This erosion of Congress’ constitutional power takes away our ability as elected officials to advocate on behalf of our home states.”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.