Senate Republicans Free to Request Earmarks for Federal Spending

Senate Republicans who want earmarks for projects in their states will be free to request them a decade after the practice was ended following a series of scandals.

Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said the chamber’s GOP lawmakers at a meeting Wednesday decided to leave in place their existing policy, which opposes earmarking money for special projects but isn’t binding on individual members.

“If you don’t want earmarks, don’t ask for one,” the Alabama senator said. “You might not get one. But the old earmark days, they’re gone. They’re going to have to be meritorious. They’re going to have to be substantive in nature and meaningful.”

The practice of letting lawmakers designate home-state projects for funding in the past made it easier to approve annual appropriations bills. It could help ease the way for the transportation portion of President Joe Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure-led spending plan, by giving senators the ability to claim specific wins for their states.

Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters that it was clear the votes were not there to overturn the anti-earmark policy and that he hopes senators don’t seek them -- but acknowledged they could.

“I certainly hope that every member of the Republican conference complies with what the conference rules say,” Cruz said. “Can a member choose to act differently? Sure.”

Senate Republicans also adopted a non-binding conference rule proposed by Rick Scott of Florida “basically saying that any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied with a corresponding cut in spending,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. “But it’s aspirational,” he cautioned.

Momentum had been building for a return to earmarks, with Democrats and Republicans in the House already resuming the practice. GOP senators who refuse to earmark face the prospect of going hat-in-hand to the Biden administration to seek funding for projects in their states.

Earmarks -- specific projects designated for a legislative district or a state -- were discontinued a decade ago in Congress after a series of corruption and waste scandals. They were abandoned after the GOP takeover of the House on a wave of Tea Party anti-deficit enthusiasm.

Some 15 GOP Senators signed a letter Monday vowing to continue to support a ban on earmarks.

Proponents of the practice say rules on disclosing requests for earmarks will prevent the kinds of abuses in the past, while encouraging the kind of deal-making essential to bipartisan agreements.

That could be key as Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” works its way through the Senate. Republicans are set to provide their alternative to Biden’s proposal as soon as Thursday, paring it back to physical infrastructure such as roads, airports and ports along with expanding access to broadband. Biden had included items such as spending for elderly care.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has been leading discussions to return earmarks in the appropriations bills for the 2022 fiscal year. Earmarks are expected to total around $15 billion, about 1% of the $1.5 trillion in spending for the year for both the House and Senate. Leahy has said he is willing to share half of the Senate earmarking funds with Republicans, creating an incentive for members of the party to go along to get nearly $4 billion in local projects.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is accepting requests for projects from lawmakers through April 23 for the bill it plans to write next month. The committee is expected to post the requests on its website with certifications that lawmakers will not personally benefit.

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