Democrats Plan Return to Earmarks to Ease Way on Votes

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House Democrats are planning a big change next year to the way Congress spends taxpayer money by allowing individual lawmakers to insert pet projects into bills for the first time since Congress banned the practice in 2011.

Democratic leaders are betting that reintroducing earmarks will help secure votes needed to pass major parts of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and protect their House majority in 2022. The practice would be a powerful tool for rounding up support, especially on an infrastructure package that would spread federal dollars across the country, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio said.

Democrats Plan Return to Earmarks to Ease Way on Votes

“I think it is absolutely critical to doing a transportation infrastructure bill,” DeFazio said, especially if that involves raising revenue such as through a gasoline tax increase. “It gives lawmakers something to bring home to say this is how we are going to spend federal dollars, especially if we going to raise user fees.”

But the move comes with significant political risk. With Biden getting set to take office, Republicans have signaled a renewed interest in holding down federal spending after years of ballooning deficits under President Donald Trump. The GOP could make the return of earmarks an issue in the 2022 midterm election if they campaign against the deficit their bid to retake the House, which they did successfully in 2010.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has led the effort to restore earmarks, defended the practice as a way for individual members to advocate for their districts. He also said having earmarks will be “useful” for leaders to build support for major legislation.

“The constitutional responsibility of the Congress is to raise and spend money,” Hoyer said in an interview. “The member of Congress knows those issues better than somebody in Washington or somebody in the White House.”

Transparency Reforms

The return of earmarks will be accompanied by some caps on total dollar amounts, a ban on benefits for for-profit companies and requirements to post the requests online. These limits, designed to prevent a repeat of the 2005 Alaska “bridge to nowhere” scandal in which money was funneled to a publicly dubious project, are insufficient in the eyes of critics, however.

Democrats Plan Return to Earmarks to Ease Way on Votes

Hoyer said it will be up to Republican members of Congress whether to submit earmark requests or to boycott the process, but he predicted many will join in the effort.

“A whole lot of Republicans think they made a mistake,” in banning it, he said, adding that it’s not true that earmarks increase overall deficit spending.

“It is a very, very small chunk of change with regard to overall budget and it doesn’t raise the budget cap,” Hoyer said. In the House, total earmarks on annual funding bills will be capped at 1% of the spending level. Members will have to declare that they will not benefit personally from the earmark.

Changes like that were first instituted by a Democratic majority in 2007, in the wake of scandals such as that of California Republican Representative Randy Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for defense earmarks in 2005.

Infrastructure Package

Earmarks will be available for annual agency funding bills under the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee and to a massive infrastructure bill that President-elect Joe Biden plans to make one of his signature achievements during his first year in office.

Defazio, an Oregon Democrat, said he expects an infrastructure package to have between 3% to 6% of funding dedicated to such projects.

“It is a small percentage of the bill, instead of giving all the discretion for non-mandatory spending to the secretary of Transportation. I would think Republicans would be willing to do that,” he said.

Democrats and many Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees have been longing to bring back their ability to direct money to specific projects to benefit their districts. It will also revive a sub-industry for lobbyists who specialized in helping companies and localities obtain directed funding.

It is unclear whether the Senate Republicans will go along with the practice if they retain the majority next year after two Senate runoff elections in Georgia next month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has not said whether he backs on the idea. If the House produces bills with earmarks, there could be pressure on the Senate to allow its members to do the same.

“I haven’t given any real thought to that,” McConnell told reporters.

Waste and Fraud

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, said earmarks can make sense with proper procedures put in place, such as limiting them to authorized programs.

“Directed appropriations are in the Constitution, but people abused them and there’s a lot of opposition to that,” he said. “So we will have to see.”

Other Republicans are strongly opposed to the practice, particularly in the House.

Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said earmarks will bring waste, fraud and corruption.

“A lot of the corruption scandals of the early 2000s revolved around earmarks,” he said. “When the same body that is appropriating the money is also spending the money, there is no check in the system.”

Steve Ellis of the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense said the reforms to earmarks need to go further than those planned by Democrats, including enshrining the changes in the House rules rather than making them informal. That includes a “searchable database of all earmark requests, all earmark awards, their beneficiaries, their intended purpose,” he said. “That didn’t exist before.”

He said earmarks should remain banned for programs that are competitive, merit-based or funded according to a formula, and they should be term-limited so they don’t get funded year after year automatically.

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