Members Rethink Earmark Ban

Posted March 14, 2011 at 6:43pm

House appropriators from both parties are starting to push for a re-examination of the Republican-imposed earmark ban.

Democrats and Republicans alike are concerned that the ban will be enforced too broadly, and they want to revisit the definition of what an “earmark” is under House rules. The earmark ban hasn’t really been an issue for Members since it was adopted last November, but appropriators fear they may run into problems as they look to tackle 2012 spending measures and other project-based bills.

Rep. Steven LaTourette, an appropriator who led an unsuccessful push to clarify the definition of an earmark under House rules when the GOP voted to adopt the earmark ban in November, said he thinks there is a “legitimate debate” looming about what an earmark is; the Ohio Republican said the current definition is inadequate.

“Everybody’s decided they’re going to run against earmarks, without necessarily knowing what an earmark is. … I think you can say earmarks are bad, as long as we know what an earmark is, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” said LaTourette, who is close to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Without clarity, LaTourette predicted, Members will have a tough time trying to pass some legislation: “It’s not clear. If you look at a couple of bills around here — the Water Resources Development Act, the Energy-water appropriations bill — they’re all earmarks.”

Earmarks have divided House Republicans, with appropriators and veteran Members among those most reluctant to embrace a ban. When Republicans took control of the House in January, they decided not to enter what would been a contentious debate over altering the definition of an earmark. House rules define an earmark as “a specific amount of … spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific state, locality or Congressional district.” 

GOP leaders are suggesting the Conference as a whole doesn’t want to revisit the issue. Spokesmen for Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) both said Monday that the ban is settled.

“The House Republican Conference has adopted an earmark moratorium. Period,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.

Still, several GOP appropriators echoed LaTourette’s sentiment that lawmakers needed a clearer sense of what is included in the ban before they move forward on legislation that funds water, roads and infrastructure projects.

“If Congress wants to use its Constitutional authority to direct spending, then we do need to discuss where that authority can be reclaimed and where it [can’t],” said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who has long been in favor of addressing the earmark issue.

In 2007, Kingston co-sponsored legislation that would have called for a moratorium on earmarks and authorized a bipartisan select committee to define an earmark, suggest how to eliminate last-minute earmarks to bills and explain the proper use of Congressionally directed spending.

He pointed to Army Corps of Engineers’ projects as one area where it’s important for Congress to take a lead role in appropriating funding. Otherwise, Kingston said, it will be up to bureaucrats and the administration to decide where to direct the funding.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, an Appropriations cardinal, said she also wants to take another look at the earmark definition, arguing that districts such as hers really need the funding.

 “The way we level the playing field is by having Member-directed projects,” the Missouri Republican said. “A lot of my little communities don’t have the ability to do competitive grants; they can’t afford to hire somebody to do the applications, and they don’t know how to do them themselves.”

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, who is charged with authoring transportation reauthorization legislation, said Republicans not only need to address how the ban will affect the annual appropriations measures, but also how it will affect administrative earmarks.

“It probably won’t reach a peak until this summer, when Members wake up and say, ‘Do we earmark one line and send it to the administration and let them decide?’” the Florida Republican said.

According to Mica, leaders said they needed to put the moratorium in place and would look at how to deal with project-based bills later. He said he hasn’t had any recent conversations with leaders on the issue but is still “waiting to look.”

Democratic appropriators say they also would press GOP leaders to take another look at the ban.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, said he was concerned the ban would hamstring funding for national programs with local chapters such as Teach for America, Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA.

“I am going to be seeking formally some clarification on that,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “This idea of defining what an earmark is is going to be an important issue. … But Members will — under whatever the rules are — will try to get their priorities in these bills.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said he would favor a “new definition” of earmarks. Democrats in the 111th Congress banned earmarks for private companies but allowed nonprofits and other public entities to continue to receive Congressionally directed funds. But the Washington Democratic noted that nothing can be done unless the White House — President Barack Obama has vowed to veto bills containing earmarks — is involved in the negotiations.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, who was unsuccessful in his attempt to keep the Appropriations gavel this Congress, predicted that revisiting the ban would be a nonstarter, at least for the next two years.

“Maybe after this next election,” the California Republican said.

And any attempt to provide flexibility on earmarks would undoubtedly meet resistance from a strong block of conservative House Republicans.

Longtime anti-earmark crusader Rep. Jeff Flake, who recently became an appropriator, said it was important to remain vigilant against attempts to weaken the moratorium.

The Arizona Republican noted that the absence of earmarks in the ongoing continuing resolution debate has helped Members make substantial cuts.

“It’s been so nice not to have that distraction and so we can actually come to the floor without the logrolling that typically happens with earmarks,” Flake said.