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Democrats Weighing Earmark Revival if They Take Back House

Elimination of earmarks led to an “abdication of Congress’ power of the purse,” Hoyer says

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer is calling for lawmakers to bring back earmarks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer is calling for lawmakers to bring back earmarks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At the end of a speech Wednesday outlining what he billed as congressional Democrats’ vision to renew the county’s faith in government, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer called for lawmakers to bring back earmarks.

It was a noteworthy mention from the Democrats’ No. 2 in House leadership during a talk that focused on his party’s plans — should it win control of the chamber in the midterms — to overhaul campaign finance and government ethics laws and to weed out the perception of corruption on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch.

Earmarks, or congressionally directed pots of federal funds for projects in specific districts, became hugely controversially in the mid-2000s amid bribery and corruption scandals as well as criticism about wasteful government spending, including for a so-called bridge to nowhere that Alaska lawmakers sought.

“Republicans eliminated earmarks altogether, and the result has been an abdication of Congress’ power of the purse,” Hoyer said during the speech at Union Station’s Columbus Club, hosted by the campaign finance overhaul group End Citizens United.

Democrats, Hoyer pointed out, overhauled the process in 2007, scrapping earmarks for for-profit institutions and requiring lawmakers to publicly disclose and explain all earmark requests.

“I think it worked,” Hoyer, previously a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said of those changes. The Maryland Democrat added that lawmakers now go “hat in hand” to bureaucrats in the executive branch looking for funding for projects in their congressional districts.

Numerous congressional insiders — including lawmakers, staff and lobbyists — say that the GOP ban on earmarks has led to increased legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill because it took away pivotal incentives for vote wrangling.

But unlike the campaign finance and ethics overhauls that Hoyer pushed for in his speech Wednesday, urging a return of earmarks is not a popular message on the campaign trail — for Democrats or Republicans. Lobbying, of course, is unpopular in campaign rhetoric, and earmarks were the backbone of the K Street industry, which had to adjust.

“From a standpoint of making the House function better and getting votes for things that are unpopular, there is no better tool than an earmark,” said lobbyist Sam Geduldig, a former House GOP leadership aide, now with the firm CGCN Group. “Republicans, by getting rid of them, injured their ability to move legislative proposals.”

As for whether Republicans would join Hoyer and other Democrats in resurrecting earmarks, Geduldig predicted they would “probably vote NO, and hope yes.”

John Feehery, another former House Republican aide, said Hoyer is right from a constitutional perspective, given that the founding document gave lawmakers the power to appropriate funds. But the politics of it may be another matter entirely, especially for Republicans.

“Congress needs to reclaim the spending power from the executive branch,” said Feehery, a partner with EFB Advocacy. “Politically, at least from a Republican perspective, earmarks are still not very popular.”

Earmarks, which often included funding for infrastructure projects, were at the center of numerous scandals in the mid-2000s including one involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan is retiring and the most likely successor as Republicans’ top leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, has worked to ban earmarks, according to the bio on his website. Rep. Jim Jordan, the conservative Ohio Republican who has also launched a bid to lead his party in the chamber, has been vocal in his opposition to a return of earmarks.

“All members need to be reminded of the consequences of earmarks,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which opposes earmarks. He called them “corrupt, inequitable and wasteful,” in a press release his group put out later in the day.

Watch: Hoyer Targets Voting Rights, Campaign Finance as Top Changes for Next Congress

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