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Senate to follow House, keep earmarks out of spending bills

Earmarks have also been banned in the Senate since 2011

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., is seen after the Senate Policy luncheons on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., is seen after the Senate Policy luncheons on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate appropriators don’t plan to revive earmarks this year, following the House’s lead set late last week by the Democratic majority across the Capitol.

“I would listen to meritorious things, but I don’t see that happening right now. The House has just spoken,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey announced last week that chamber wouldn’t bring back earmarks for fiscal 2020. In a letter to House lawmakers, the New York Democrat referred only to spending bills originating in that chamber, and she didn’t preclude “congressionally directed spending” making a reappearance later in the appropriations process, perhaps in conference.

“I think if the House would have changed their rule, we would have had to reconsider. But I think it’s unlikely that the Senate takes the lead there,” said Missouri Republican and Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt.

Lowey was under a time crunch; her 12 subcommittees last week began soliciting member requests and feedback on what to include in fiscal 2020 appropriations bills. Such requests are due at the beginning of April. Therefore Lowey’s guidance was needed on whether earmarks would be allowed before the thousands of member submissions begin flowing in.

In addition, House Republicans decided this year to hold on to their earmark ban for now, despite the ascension of California Republican Kevin McCarthy to the top GOP leadership slot. McCarthy is not known for the same vocal opposition to special member projects that was a hallmark of former Republican leaders John A. Boehner of Ohio and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

And without House Republicans on board, it appeared unlikely the Senate would have removed its ban as well, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.

Republican opposition

Blunt said Monday that one of the reasons the GOP-controlled Senate won’t take the first step toward bringing back earmarks is that a majority of its Republican members still support the ban. There are even Senate Appropriations Committee members who support the earmark prohibition, which is part of that chamber’s Republican conference rules.

“I thought it was a step forward when the conference got rid of [earmarks]. If the majority decides to bring them back, I think everybody should be required to demonstrate the public interest of the earmark and put their name on it. But I would vote against it,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy.

Earmarks have been banned in the House since 2011, when Republicans wrote a prohibition into their rules package. House Democrats have continued the practice since regaining control in January.

Earmarks have also been banned in the Senate since 2011 when then-Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, put a committee ban in place. When Republicans took the majority, they continued to prevent new earmarks from going into spending bills.

“The Republican caucus has been on record to freeze earmarks for a number of years. Earmarks have become pejorative,” Shelby said. “A lot of us had directed spending in appropriations bills, but some people abused it. And when they do, it’s hard to bring it back.”

Shelby, however, noted that the president himself — who was elected in part on his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington — has floated the possibility of allowing earmarks to creep back into the legislative process.

President Donald Trump suggested last January that bringing back earmarks might lead to an uptick in bipartisan legislation and allow lawmakers to advance bills more easily.

“I hear so much about earmarks . . . how there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks,” Trump said. “But of course, they had other problems with earmarks. But maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

Infrastructure possibilities

That bipartisan goodwill instead could pop up first in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, even if appropriators don’t move forward with earmarks.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio said last week that he intends to use earmarks as a way to increase support for raising the federal gasoline tax to pay for a substantial infrastructure package. The levy hasn’t budged from 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, despite inflation eroding the tax’s purchasing power, and declining revenue in the Highway Trust Fund has been a perennial headache for lawmakers.

“Why shouldn’t elected representatives, through a transparent process, be able to spend a small amount of money, bring it home and show people what they’re going to get for a small increase in their gas tax?”DeFazio said last Wednesday during a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transit Officials.

“I think that’s the key to getting this done,” the Oregon Democrat added. “And I intend to bring back Congress to the table here with what we will now call ‘Article I’ projects.”

Blunt said Monday that how the House Transportation panel handles such a change would be instructive.

“Mr. DeFazio has said he wants to go back to earmarks . . . that might be the other way that the House sets a new course here,” Blunt said. “But my belief is that, at least for this Congress, that the Senate is unlikely to lead on this issue. But we would be likely to follow if the House set a different standard.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, said he would like to see the Senate bring back earmarks for spending bills, even if the House does not.

“They don’t have to have any. Anybody that doesn’t want them doesn’t have to have any. I hope we have them in the Senate,” Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy said.

“Anybody that doesn’t want to have directed spending doesn’t have to, and if none of the House want any, fine. That’s more money for the Senate to have,” the Vermont Democrat said. 

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.