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Are Earmarks Really Dead?

The biennial fight over earmarks came and went this year with barely a peep. While the issue has not been permanently put to rest, the informal ban on congressionally directed funding appears to have staying power.

House and Senate Republicans adopted internal prohibitions on earmarks this month, and while Senate Democrats have yet to make it official, they’ll likely follow suit if for no other reason than the GOP’s position would make any Democratic-sponsored earmarks dead on arrival in the House.

“Having heard nothing to the contrary, we are presuming that the current moratorium on earmarks will stay in place in the next Congress,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, who authored the Senate GOP’s most recent ban, said the earmark moratorium has persisted because so many Republican lawmakers now support it.

“Right now in the current composition in the Republican Conference in the Senate, there is a pretty substantial majority that believes that we should continue this moratorium,” the Pennsylvania lawmaker said.

At their organizational meeting earlier this month, Senate Republicans approved by secret ballot a Toomey proposal to extend the current earmark ban to the next congressional two-year session, which begins January. Earmarks are provisions in legislation that direct funding to members’ home-state projects.

The Senate GOP vote came as House Republicans, who hold a majority in the chamber, also extended the current ban to the next Congress at their organizational meeting.

With both chambers’ Republicans in sync, Senate Democrats have little room to maneuver on the issue. They faced a similar situation in 2010, when they determined that reconciling spending bills with the House would be too difficult if they included earmarks. It hasn’t helped the Democrats’ position that President Barack Obama has also argued against the practice.

Toomey said he hopes Democrats officially follow the Republicans’ lead.

“They did the right thing the last time, and it saved the taxpayers a very substantial amount of money, and it helped discipline federal spending somewhat,” he said.

Though the bans have passed with little public opposition, Sen. Lamar Alexander said he hopes earmarks will be brought back in the future. “Earmarks became a scandal and we needed to clean them up,” the Tennessee Republican said Monday evening. “But it’s time for us to begin to think about our constitutional responsibilities, which are to appropriate dollars.” Alexander noted that he voted for the moratorium again this year.

Other longtime GOP supporters of earmarks include Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who serves on the Appropriations Committee. She told Alaska Public Radio Network that she doesn’t agree with the strategy.

“We have taken an approach that I think is designed to be more of a public relations thing: You got to convince the public we’re cutting the budget,” she said after the GOP voted on the issue. “We are not cutting spending. We’re letting the executive branch determine the priorities.”

The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, widely known for his zealous defense of the practice, argued that because of the state’s remote location, sparse population and wide swaths of federal land, earmarks are essential to Alaska’s economic development.

On the House side this month, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, considered offering a proposal that would have allowed for earmarks, but he decided against it after realizing it would not be adopted, according to a source in the room.

The amendment would allow earmarks if the person requesting it was identified, the project was initiated in committee and the recipient was a government entity.

Though Democrats generally have supported the earmarking process, not all are on board. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., opposes earmarks and has worked with Toomey to pass a legislative ban, for which she intends to continue to advocate.

“When I got to the Senate six years ago, the abuse of taxpayer dollars through earmarks was rampant,” she said in an emailed statement. “We’ve come a long way, and I look forward to holding the line against reviving this deeply problematic practice. I plan to keep pushing for stronger accountability by permanently banning earmarks altogether.”

Toomey, who said he hasn’t spoken with McCaskill since before the Senate recessed for the elections, stressed that he plans to continue to push for a legislative ban.

“I don’t assume that this [earmark issue] will not resurface,” Toomey said. “I’ll continue to support a legislative ban.”

The success of the earmark ban has come through changes to internal party rules, not through legislation, which suggests senators, at least, are not ready to make the situation permanent.

In February, the Senate voted 40-59 against an earmark ban amendment offered by Toomey and McCaskill.

Getting earmarks back into legislation won’t be easy. Sarah Binder, a congressional historian at George Washington University, said restoring the practice would take a political shift away from divided government.

“I think they are hard to bring back unless both parties hold hands and decide” they are going to bring back earmarks, she said.

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