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Conservatives: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Republicans look to avoid earmark reinstatement once and for all

Texas Rep. John Culberson, seen here with presidential adviser Kellyanne Conaway at the inauguration last month, made an ill-fated effort to bring back earmarks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Rep. John Culberson, seen here with presidential adviser Kellyanne Conaway at the inauguration last month, made an ill-fated effort to bring back earmarks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Conservative lawmakers banded together Tuesday to send a message to their Republican colleagues: Don’t bring back earmarks.

“If you start going down this road, you will lose the House of Representatives,” Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis said at an anti-earmark event hosted by the Republican Study Committee.

RSC Chairman Mark Walker said the conversation with a panel of conservative lawmakers was part of the committee’s goal to be proactive rather than reactive. After the event, the North Carolina Republican told Roll Call that he has spoken with GOP leaders about ensuring that earmarks do not resurface and they affirmed that they’re on the same page.

During a private conference meeting in December when House Republicans were discussing their internal rules for the 115th Congress, a few members offered an amendment calling for a limited restoration of earmarks. That amendment and another more targeted amendment that would have provided Congress authority to prioritize projects for money appropriated to the Army Corps of Engineers were both withdrawn at the request of leadership.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, worried about the secret nature under which the discussion was taking place, promised that House Republicans would have another opportunity to debate the issue and that a public vote on the matter would occur in the first quarter of 2017. Leadership has not yet announced plans for that discussion or vote.

While Congress may make some modifications to the Corps, it is unlikely to overturn the earmark ban, Walker said.

“He wants to open it up for dialogue, but I don’t see anything changing,” he added, referring to Ryan.

The conservatives on the panel said it would be bad optics and politics to bring back earmarks, especially at a time when President Donald Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp” in Washington.

“There are a lot of people around here that think the swamp is a hot tub, but it’s a swamp and it needs to be drained,” former RSC Chairman Bill Flores said.

The Texas Republican predicted that had the GOP conference voted on the amendment in December, it would have been successful. He believes Ryan stepped in because he sensed that too.

“I have the sick feeling that there is more than half the conference that would vote for this if it came back,” Flores said, calling on the grass roots to get involved and ensure that doesn’t happen.

Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscally conservative watchdog group, noted that 63 percent of House Republicans have been elected since 2010 – the year House Republicans decided to ban earmarks – and thus have not witnessed the corruption that earmarks brought.

“I never thought I’d have to be part of getting the earmark ban band back together,” said Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, one of the Republican members who helped push for the earmark ban under former Speaker John A. Boehner.

“It just goes to show that there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats in politics,” Hensarling added.

Former GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma called earmarks “the gateway drug to overspending” and suggested that holding the administration accountable through oversight is the best way for Congress to control spending.

Texas Rep. John Culberson, who offered the amendment to restore earmarks on a limited basis last year, attended the conservatives’ event. The Appropriations Committee member addressed the panel during the question- and-answer session, telling them he agrees that Congress need not return to “the battle days” but that something needs to be done to return the power of the purse to Congress.

“Let’s flip this whole thing around because our goal is to control an out of control bureaucracy,” Culberson said. He suggested the RSC host a dialogue about creating a process for prioritizing projects recommended by agencies in a way that is transparent, protects the national interest and keeps members’ political judgements out of it.

Former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Congress could revamp the Corps or make other tweaks but advised against anything that would open the door to reinstating earmarks.

“If it even comes up in conference again that Republicans are leading this effort … I can’t imagine the tweet that you’re going to get from Donald Trump,” DeMint said.

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