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Leahy Endorses Return of Spending Bill Earmarks

Doing so could allow for orderly, timely appropriations process, Vermont Democrat says

Remarks by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., on bringing back earmarks echo similar ones expressed by House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Remarks by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., on bringing back earmarks echo similar ones expressed by House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee would like to bring earmarks back to the appropriations process, restoring a practice banned in 2011 after several years of scandals and negative publicity.

Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy told C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” on Friday that there’s “no question” that once again allowing earmarks is one way lawmakers can have an orderly, timely process for annual appropriations bills.

“I don’t know who’s going to be in the majority next year. Obviously, I hope Democrats are. But whoever it is, I want to continue to do this,” Leahy said of the bipartisan comity the Senate has fostered for the fiscal 2019 spending process. “We can do it if we want to.”

The breakdown of “regular order” debate on spending in recent years has been attributed to lackluster support for appropriations measures borne out of having little reason to vote for them. Steering federal funds to specific projects, on the other hand, gives lawmakers an “easy win” they can point to back home.

Leahy said if Senate Democrats retake control and revive the practice, it would be done in the same fashion Congress adopted a few years before the ban took effect: members of Congress had to affix their name to specific projects in spending bills.

“If somebody proposes something, they’ve got to have their name on it and we’ve got to vote on it,” the Vermont Democrat said. “But I’ve never understood why the Congress has the power of the purse, we won’t really say how it’s spent, we’ll just turn this over to whoever’s in the White House, Republican or Democrat.”

Leahy’s remarks echo those of Republican and Democratic counterparts who want to see the annual spending process get back to some semblance of working order again after years of stopgap funding bills and late enactment of full-year appropriations. Earlier this week, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland also endorsed bringing back earmarks should Democrats flip that chamber, with a prohibition on funds directly benefiting for-profit businesses.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Wednesday that Senate Republicans also could discuss a return to earmarks, if it came with “real reforms.”

“I’ve used earmarks, directed appropriations before. I hope for good things,” the Alabama Republican said. “But it got a bad name.”

“In the Constitution, it says Congress shall appropriate the money,” he said, referring to Article 1 Section 9 Clause 7. “I think if we authorize things in the future that were fully funded and transparent, we could maybe appropriate. But, I think, as far as going back to the old way of doing earmarks, I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

Leahy said home-state projects in spending bills would have to gain broad support from lawmakers, who would likely weed out any proposals that don’t provide a public benefit and simply drain taxpayer dollars.

“Then let’s make sure that it’s all done publicly and openly, and I would assume that, one, you’re not going to have some idiotic project pass, but you’re going to have something where people care about it,” Leahy countered. “Sometimes, what somebody wants as a pet thing might turn out to be very good.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.Watch: Hoyer Targets Voting Rights, Campaign Finance as Top Changes for Next Congress

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