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Republicans divided on Democrats’ push to restore earmarks

Veteran appropriators see merit in 'congressionally directed spending,' but more conservative factions still opposed

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Russell Senate Office Building on Feb. 23, 2021.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Russell Senate Office Building on Feb. 23, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans’ family discussion on earmarks is starting to spill into public view, with top GOP lawmakers backing “congressionally directed spending” while staunchly conservative members stake out their opposition.

The division sets up another fissure as the party continues to struggle with its identity in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said he backs earmarks that are “meritorious and transparent,” adding lawmakers’ authority over the federal budget is spelled out in the Constitution. “If they are frivolous requests, they should go by the wayside,” Shelby told reporters.

Shelby, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, is a longtime supporter of “congressionally directed spending,” but his caucus in recent years has opposed restoring the practice that was initially banned in 2011.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., another veteran appropriator, deferred to Shelby on Wednesday when asked if he’d support a return to earmarks. But McConnell, no stranger to earmarks himself, also knows Shelby’s view on the topic and what he’d likely say.

Senate Republicans would have to amend their conference rules after two years ago a permanent earmark ban authored by Ben Sasse of Nebraska was adopted. In recent weeks others have gotten more vocal about avoiding the return of special line items for their home states.

Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who won a high-profile reelection battle in November, wrote in a CQ Roll Call opinion article last month that lawmakers made the right call a decade ago “after years of politicians literally pigging out on taxpayer dollars, earmarking millions for special interests and their own pet projects, like that infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska.”

In the House, Republicans are also approaching the subject somewhat gingerly. Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, has declined repeated requests for comment on the topic.

But Rep. Tom Cole, a senior appropriator and ranking member on the House Rules Committee, said in a statement he believes “there is a time and a place for congressionally directed appropriations that are guided by a set of specific parameters.”

Cole, R-Okla., said that when “focused on core infrastructure and community service needs, this tool can vitally help members to ensure their constituencies are not overlooked.”

Not all GOP lawmakers are on board, however. The House Freedom Caucus, made up of the most conservative Republican lawmakers in that chamber, “opposes the use of earmarks, whether in the 117th Congress or any future Congress,” according to a statement the group released Wednesday.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., expects Republicans will participate in earmarks when they return this year, though he doesn’t know how GOP lawmakers will address their ban on congressionally directed spending within party rules.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans, who I expect are going to be requesting earmarks for their districts,” Hoyer said during a conference call with reporters. 

Hoyer has said it’s likely to involve similar restrictions to those in place before the ban took effect a decade ago, such as full disclosure of member requests, any financial interests in a project and preventing funds from being directed to for-profit entities.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., are working on the specific process for bringing earmarks back in their respective chambers. 

A spokesman for Leahy said the chairman has “made it clear that he believes that members of Congress have a better understanding of their communities than Washington agencies, and he is working to bring back congressionally directed spending in a transparent and responsible way.”

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