Skip to content

Shelby skeptical of nascent House discussions on earmarks

‘The Republican Caucus is on record against that,’ Senate Appropriations chairman says

Chairman Richard C. Shelby, center, and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, attend the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement implementation bill on Jan. 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Richard C. Shelby, center, and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, attend the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement implementation bill on Jan. 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said it’s unlikely Republicans in his chamber will bring back spending bill earmarks, regardless of what the House decides.

“The Republican Caucus is on record against that, so that’s not going to go anywhere right now,” the Alabama Republican said Tuesday. Himself a prolific earmarker before the practice stopped in 2011, Shelby declined to discuss his personal views on the topic at this point. “I’m part of the [GOP] caucus and the caucus is not going to support that. So unless the caucus is involved it won’t happen,” he said.

Nonetheless, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer hinted Tuesday that he’s already talking with Republicans in both chambers about bringing back special home-state projects, known as earmarks, in some form as lawmakers prepare for the next appropriations cycle.

“You would be surprised if I hadn’t talked to both the Senate Dems and Republicans, and the House Dems and Republicans, and you would be correct in your surprise if I had not done that,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters at a Tuesday briefing. “How’s that work? A somewhat opaque answer.”

Members of both parties have pushed to bring back earmarks since House Republicans wrote a ban into their conference rules in 2011. Democrats discussed bringing back earmarks when they regained control of the House in January 2019 but opted not to for the fiscal 2020 spending process.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., has begun conversations with committee members as well as more broadly among the Democratic Caucus. Lowey and Appropriations subcommittee “cardinals” met Tuesday with freshman lawmakers and others considered vulnerable in the 2020 elections, telling CQ Roll Call later that the group had a “good, healthy” conversation.

But Lowey said others, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also need to weigh in. “A lot of members are interested, and we just have to be sure that if we move ahead we do it in the right way,” she said.

Freshman Rep. Donna E. Shalala, D-Fla., said after the meeting that lawmakers’ communities would love to have earmarks back but that she wants to see a final proposal before deciding if she’d support restoring the practice. 

Other freshmen declined to comment or hadn’t formed opinions yet.

“It was certainly a discussion,” said Max Rose, a Democratic freshman who flipped a Republican-held district last cycle in a New York district that Trump won in 2016. Rose said appropriators did not provide a timeline for when they’d have a more formal proposal to present. “I’ve got lots of questions about this,” he said.

“I just went to hear them out,” said Anthony Brindisi, who, like his New York colleague Rose, flipped a GOP seat in a Trump district. “I haven’t formulated an opinion one way or the other.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales counts Rose and Brindisi among the most vulnerable Democrats in the 2020 elections, rating both of their races Toss-ups.

A House Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said after the meeting that the meeting was “constructive” and that there is “general support for increased congressional involvement in funding community projects and for reforms to ensure public trust in such a process.” Discussions would “continue in the coming days,” the aide added.

‘Not tenable’

It’s likely incumbent on a bicameral deal to restore line items for members’ states and districts in spending bills. Otherwise, House lawmakers could be in the uncomfortable position of promising to direct federal funds without much likelihood of securing them in the final spending bills. And senators would find themselves unable to crow about aiding their constituents in the same way House members could with pre-election press releases. 

Shalala said she first wanted to gauge “whether there’s a bipartisan effort to put [earmarks] back in.”

House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., favors bringing back earmarks but said it is not feasible without support from House Republicans and the Senate.

“You don’t want one party not being part of the process and carping at the process,” he said. “That’s simply not tenable.”

But Price said that support could come in stages.

“I’m not necessarily saying that before we do any of this or experiment with it that all boxes need to be checked,” he said. “We just have to see how we might proceed and what kind of support we can count on and then hope that we can have near unanimity about this at the end of the day.”

Senate Republicans have a “permanent” ban on earmarks, imposed last year on a 28-12 conferencewide vote. But Hoyer was dismissive of that Senate GOP cohesion lasting in perpetuity: “Yeah, right,” he said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who serves as chief deputy whip, said a majority of Democrats favor earmarks, “but I think there’s a lot of concern that it be done in a way that is significantly different than the way it was done in the past.”

Hoyer said earmarks, if they return, would likely require full transparency. For example, members would have to list their names next to their project requests earmark. They’d also have to certify that neither they nor their family members have any personal financial interest in a project backed by federal funds. And earmarks could only go toward public objectives, not private entities.  

“We expect and have talked to our Republican colleagues about additional ways to make sure that these are fully transparent and legitimate investments on behalf of the jurisdictions and the American people,” he said. “In that context, I believe we ought to bring them back.”

Select committee deliberations

Support is already growing within the House, including from the chamber’s Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, lawmakers said. Some panel members say there is a chance the panel will vote to recommend the return of earmarks, which could be an important step symbolically to spark broader backing from both parties in the House.

“The decision hasn’t been made yet whether to even vote on it,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a member of the modernization committee as well as the Appropriations panel. “But I think, gauging the interest, I think there’s a pretty good possibility that we could get to that point.”

Newhouse said there is “a lot of support to discuss the potential. A lot of people are seeing it as a constitutional issue. The powers of spending should rest with the Congress, not the executive branch.”

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., another select committee member, said there is support on the committee for Congress reclaiming its spending powers.

“Do we have bipartisan support for filling that Article I [of the Constitution] role? Of course we do,” Woodall said. “Have we found a pathway that makes everyone comfortable? I don’t think we have.”

Woodall stressed his support for restoring lawmakers’ ability to designate Army Corps of Engineers and transportation projects.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a prominent conservative, said he continues to oppose earmarks, saying they are a “slippery slope” to the return of the type of scandals that eroded support for the practice over the past decade.

“I understand the argument some have made from the constitutional standpoint, but Congress has no history of being able to balance that without allowing the corruption part of it to set in.”

However, Walker said there are a growing number of Republicans in the House who favor earmarks.

Senate Appropriations ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said Congress ought to bring back line items for member projects — even if it means Republicans are left out.

“If they don’t want earmarks they don’t have to have them,” Leahy said. “If the Republicans want to make sure their members don’t have earmarks, there’s that much more left for the Democrats.”

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill