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House Appropriations candidates float possible return of earmarks

Return of line-item projects in spending bills long discussed, but remains politically fraught

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says its “premature” to discuss bringing back earmarks until after the elections.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says its “premature” to discuss bringing back earmarks until after the elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers’ ability to set aside funding for home-state projects in spending bills could return next year if at least two of the three declared candidates for the House Appropriations gavel have their way.

Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida have each committed to bringing back earmarks if chosen as the Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat after the November elections. A third candidate, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, didn’t embrace that stance but didn’t rule it out, saying it was “premature” to discuss restoring earmarks at this stage.

“It’s something the entire caucus — including newly elected members — want to be involved in after the election,” DeLauro said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing the views of all my colleagues as we review the current policy.”

The issue remains complicated even though the House has steadily moved away from the earmarks ban that former Speaker John A. Boehner first instituted nearly a decade ago, when he promised to rein in government spending and restore trust in Congress after several earmarking-related scandals. The Senate, controlled at the time by Democrats who didn’t want to be outflanked on “good government” issues, quickly followed suit.

During the ensuing years, Democrats and Republicans, especially those on the Appropriations committees, have grown more vocal with complaints that the ban erodes Congress’ constitutional authority over government spending.

In a proposal released Tuesday, Wasserman Schultz said the GOP’s ban on earmarks was and remains a “campaign messaging stunt.”

“Members best understand the needs of our communities,” Wasserman Schultz wrote to House colleagues. “The earmark ban ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats who are currently beholden to an erratic, lawless president.”

[Wasserman Schultz gains support in bid for Appropriations gavel]

After the 2016 elections, Republicans almost overturned their self-imposed ban. But then-Speaker Paul D. Ryan stepped in during the closed-door meeting to sideline the vote, telling members that bringing back earmarks after President Donald Trump campaigned on a “drain the swamp” message wasn’t good optics.

Ryan promised to hold a vote within a few months but never followed through. He instead tasked the GOP-run Rules Committee at the time to hold a series of hearings and produce a report; the report never materialized, however.

When Democrats took control of the House in January 2019, they didn’t add a similar ban to their caucus rules or the House’s official rules package, technically leaving the door open to earmarks. But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., who is retiring at the end of the year, opted not to allow the practice in last year’s spending bills.

[House Democrats won’t resurrect earmarks this year]

Lowey came back to the issue with a series of caucus meetings in January. She ultimately decided against bringing back earmarks after meeting with vulnerable Democrats, who had concerns despite assurances that the process would be transparent and that project funding would be spread around more evenly than in the past.

Smoke-filled rooms

The term “earmarks” still has negative connotations, conjuring images of smoke-filled rooms and wasteful projects like the famed “bridges to nowhere” in the 2005 highway bill connecting sparsely populated parts of Alaska. That’s one reason both parties have tried to rebrand the practice, with Republicans referring to earmarks as “congressionally directed spending” and Democrats renaming them “community project funding.”

Decisions by Kaptur and Wasserman Schultz to support earmarking, and by DeLauro to leave the door open, wouldn’t guarantee that House leadership would bring back the practice during the 117th Congress, especially if moderate Democrats push back. Nonetheless, restoring earmarks has high-level support on both sides of the Capitol, including from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who served on Appropriations for 24 years and continues to hold his seniority.

He’d bring back the practice along with controls that his party instituted upon retaking the House after the 2006 midterms, such as requiring members to make their requests and the justifications for them public; requiring them to certify that neither they nor their family members have any financial interest in a particular earmark; and restricting projects for private for-profit interests.

If the Senate changes hands in November, House earmark supporters would find a willing partner in Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who’d likely assume the Senate Appropriations gavel. Leahy’s been open about his eagerness to restore earmarks, and to a degree, so has the panel’s current chairman, Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.

[Leahy endorses return of spending bill earmarks]

Both have said earmarks could be implemented with restrictions, although Shelby’s been outnumbered by his fellow Senate Republicans who voted in 2019 to make their caucus’ ban permanent.

Other proposals

The House Appropriations candidates are proposing more than changes to earmarking policy as they campaign for the top Democratic slot on a panel that controls roughly $1.4 trillion in annual spending.  

DeLauro distributed a proposal last week highlighting four changes she’s pitching, and Wasserman Schultz on Tuesday released a package outlining six potential new policies.

The plans have similarities, with suggestions for better communication and inclusion of new members in the appropriations process, a commitment to diversity and a stronger oversight role for each of the 12 subcommittees.

The proposals differ substantially on details, however.

Among DeLauro’s suggestions is emphasizing bipartisanship with GOP lawmakers to produce “better domestic and national security results.” Each of the dozen subcommittees would need to review a select set of programs to eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse.” She also vowed to overhaul how Congress drafts emergency spending bills after natural disasters, writing that she would create a “clear process.”

Wasserman Schultz would expand the panel’s member services team to increase communication between the committee staff and personal offices, as well as streamlining the online portal that members use to make requests.

She would bring back the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel that the GOP-controlled House eliminated in 2011. “Now, more than ever, we need additional accountability over the black budget, as the Trump Administration continues to abuse its outlay authorities and defy the congressional intent of appropriations bills,” Wasserman Schultz wrote.

Messaging around the annual appropriations cycle and individual bills would also change under Wasserman Schultz’s leadership. Subcommittees would hold hearings on broader Democratic priorities like climate change, immigration and health care, on top of the usual agency budget oversight hearings, for instance.

Few changes would be more contentious, and attention-grabbing, than the return of earmarks. And it’s probably not lost on some Democrats that Republicans might use the discussion against them in campaign talking points.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t mince words last December when blasting an “earmark to a San Francisco historical society” authored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a huge fiscal 2020 appropriations package.

“Gaming the system like this reeks of exactly what Americans dislike most about Washington. And if entrusted with a majority in the next Congress, Republicans will do better,” McCarthy said in a statement at the time.

[Powerful patrons duel over California projects in final spending package]

The fiscal 2020 law’s $10 million for the Presidio Trust, a federal agency that operates much of a 1,500-acre national park in San Francisco, was a loan, not a direct appropriation. Pelosi’s staff said at the time that the trust’s independent and bipartisan board, including several members appointed by Trump, had requested the aid.

But in politics, nuance is often lost. And Democrats seeing the potential for McCarthy-esque statements amplified across the country, including in seats not nearly as safe as Pelosi’s, might have some difficulty embracing earmarks. 

As Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., said earlier this year when the topic was under discussion: “I’ve got lots of questions about this.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks Rose’s reelection bid a Toss-up.

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