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House Democrats won’t resurrect earmarks this year

Conversations had focused on how return would impact lawmakers facing tough reelections

 Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., speaks with reporters on July 10, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., speaks with reporters on July 10, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo) ()

Lawmakers won’t get to insert special projects for their districts into spending bills this year after all, following weeks of internal discussions and some momentum among House Democrats.

“While a tight timeframe means the Appropriations Committee will not include community projects in fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills, there is near-unanimous support in the Democratic Caucus for launching community project funding in the 117th Congress. In the coming months, appropriators will work closely with bipartisan Members to develop consensus around an accountable, effective, and transparent process for community project funding in fiscal year 2022,” a House Democratic aide said Friday.

The decision marks the second year in a row House Democrats appeared close to bringing back congressionally directed spending — now rebranded “community project funding” — before ultimately deciding against it. The practice has been absent from appropriations bills for nearly a decade, since it fell into political disfavor after several lobbying scandals.

Conversations during the past month focused on how a return to earmarking, even in limited fashion, would impact Democratic lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns. 

Following a meeting with House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey ​​​​​​and Appropriations subcommittee chairmen in January, several moderate Democrats from swing districts appeared on the fence. For instance, freshman Max Rose, who flipped a New York district that Trump won in 2016, said he had “a lot of questions.”

Had House Democrats moved forward with a proposal to reinstate earmarks, they likely would have faced several challenges getting such projects into final spending bills given a Senate GOP ban on the practice.

Even with Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., voicing his support for earmarks this week, it would have been challenging for him to convince enough of his colleagues to support earmarking during an election year. Last year 28 GOP senators voted to enact a long-term ban, while 12 voted against the proposal.

The announcement won’t end discussions about how much control Congress should have over government spending. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is likely to take up the issue this year.

Rep. Tom Cole, a senior appropriator, told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that most Republican members of the spending panel would likely support earmarks, but that a bipartisan suggestion is the better way to do it.

“I get the Democratic position that if we’re all going to do this, we need to hold hands and jump off the cliff together,” said Cole, R-Okla. He added that any proposal should have more institutional discussion and a “genuine bipartisan recommendation to the leadership.”

“I think this is one area where members need to step up and take some initiative,” Cole continued.

Lawmakers won’t get to insert special projects for their districts into spending bills this year after all, following weeks of internal discussions and some momentum among House Democrats.

“While a tight timeframe means the Appropriations Committee will not include community projects in fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills, there is near-unanimous support in the Democratic Caucus for launching community project funding in the 117th Congress,” a House Democratic aide said Friday, using a rebranded term for earmarks. “In the coming months, appropriators will work closely with bipartisan Members to develop consensus around an accountable, effective, and transparent process for community project funding in fiscal year 2022.”

The announcement came as House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., kicked off this year’s process with letters to colleagues soliciting their input on what should be included in fiscal 2021 spending bills. The letters don’t mention the possibility of earmarking. 

The decision marks the second year in a row House Democrats appeared close to bringing back congressionally directed spending — now rebranded “community project funding” — before ultimately deciding against it. The practice has been absent from appropriations bills for nearly a decade, since it fell into political disfavor after several lobbying scandals.

Conversations during the past month focused on how a return to earmarking, even in limited fashion, would impact Democratic lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns. 

Following a meeting with Lowey ​​​​​​and Appropriations subcommittee chairmen in January, several moderate Democrats from swing districts appeared on the fence. For instance, freshman Max Rose, who flipped a New York district that Trump won in 2016, said he had “a lot of questions.”

Had House Democrats moved forward with a proposal to reinstate earmarks, they likely would have faced several challenges getting such projects into final spending bills given a Senate GOP ban on the practice.

Even with Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., voicing his support for earmarks this week, it would have been challenging for him to convince enough of his colleagues to support earmarking during an election year. Last year 28 GOP senators voted to enact a long-term ban, while 12 voted against the proposal.

Lowey’s announcement won’t end discussions about how much control Congress should have over government spending. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is likely to take up the issue this year.

Rep. Tom Cole, a senior appropriator, told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that most Republican members of the spending panel would likely support earmarks, but that a bipartisan suggestion is the better way to do it.

“I get the Democratic position that if we’re all going to do this, we need to hold hands and jump off the cliff together,” said Cole, R-Okla. He added that any proposal should have more institutional discussion and a “genuine bipartisan recommendation to the leadership.”

“I think this is one area where members need to step up and take some initiative,” Cole continued.

“I think this is one area where members need to step up and take some initiative,” Cole continued.

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