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House Lawmakers Ready to Carve Some Pork

Optimistic chatter around earmarks draws cheers, cringes

Alaska Rep. Don Young still defends the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” The bridge “should have been built,” he said at a Rules subcommittee hearing Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alaska Rep. Don Young still defends the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” The bridge “should have been built,” he said at a Rules subcommittee hearing Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives appears ready to welcome back earmarks with open, bipartisan arms.

During a Rules subcommittee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers sounded optimistic that Congress will wrestle back a portion of its spending authority from the executive branch — though there was some discord over when and how earmarks should return.

“There is significant sentiment on my side of the aisle that this needs to be done,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer said. “I believe that we should take action to reinstate the use of the authority given to Congress under Article One, Section Nine, Clause Seven to direct spending in the way the Congress deems appropriate.”

The Maryland Democrat, who couldn’t speak to a specific proposal because there isn’t one, said he would recommend to his members that they support a plan to bring back “congressionally directed spending” if any is put forward.  

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Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, who outlined how the process could unfold, seemed hopeful that lawmakers would soon have additional control over where appropriations dollars are spent.  

“We need to make sure that what happens when an appropriations bill is signed [is] that we know what the money will be spent for, that we can take responsibility for that … as opposed to a process where $5 to $15 billion is given, the administration makes its own decisions and we sit back and guess or gamble at what those outcomes will be,” the Texas Republican said.

The earmark ban began in January 2011, when then-Speaker John A. Boehner orchestrated the prohibition after the GOP took control of the House in the 2010 midterms. Before then, earmarks made up a relatively small percentage of annual discretionary spending. Even if earmarks were to return in some form, they would not add to the amount of discretionary spending allowed — but they could squeeze out spending on other priorities fighting for scarce resources.

Small piece, big headache

Congress’ taste for “pork” has shifted with the political tides. In fiscal 2001, lawmakers earmarked about $18.5 billion out of $637 billion in nonemergency discretionary spending, or about 2.9 percent. Five years later, that number jumped to 3.4 percent. But in fiscal 2010, the total cost of earmarks dropped to $16.5 billion out of $1.09 trillion, or 1.5 percent, according to a Roll Call analysis. The practice fell out of favor during the lobbying scandals of the mid-2000s and when Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections and began instituting curbs.

Before House members can revive the practice, they will need to hash out several questions, like whether earmarks should be allowed on authorizing bills, as was the case before the House ban went into place, or solely on appropriations bills. They will have to decide whether to take action this year or wait until the next session of Congress begins next January, when the rules package is considered.

They will also have to specify when and how earmarks could be added to legislation — whether they would be presented to chairmen and included when a bill is released or added at the subcommittee level, the committee level, the floor or all of the above.

Perhaps most important, they will be eager to avoid embarrassing situations of the kind that prompted Boehner to eliminate the practice in the first place.

For and against

One of those embarrassing situations for the GOP was the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, which was initially added to the 2005 highway and transit authorization law and would have connected a rural Alaskan town with an island that boasted just 50 people and an airport. 

Rep. Don Young defended the bridge project in front of the subcommittee on Wednesday while encouraging the panel to bring back earmarks. “The bridge has not been built. It should have been built. There’s never been a bridge anywhere that had anything on the other side until it was built,” The Alaska Republican said, adding that by removing earmarks, Congress “neutered” itself.

Not everyone is rooting for an earmark revival. Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker spoke against the potential resurrection, arguing that if the GOP takes that step, it would lose control of the House during the 2018 midterm elections. Walker also told the panel that just because a constitutional authority argument can be made for bringing back earmarks, that doesn’t mean lawmakers should do it.

“Effective conservatism requires the right policy, the right message and the right voice,” Walker said. “There is nothing illegal about me showing up inebriated to this meeting today, yet it’s not the best judgment.”

The Rules panel is scheduled to resume discussion of the issue on Thursday, when it hears from five off-Hill experts, including Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Thomas A. Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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