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Leahy: GOP can have half the earmarks in spending bills

Republican leaders haven't blessed the return of 'congressionally directed spending' so far

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., gives a tour to a group of the National Guard soldiers in his hideaway office in the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., gives a tour to a group of the National Guard soldiers in his hideaway office in the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy plans to bring back earmarks this Congress even if Republicans won’t participate, but as an enticement to do so he’d dedicate half of the spending on “directed funds” to the GOP.

“I’m perfectly willing to divide it equally between Republicans and Democrats. And so it will be up to them if they want it. If they don’t, we’ll just have it on the Democratic side,” the Vermont Democrat told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.

Leahy’s been in conversations with Appropriations Committee ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., for weeks about exactly when and how to bring back “congressionally directed spending” in the Senate.

He’s also been discussing the matter with House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who announced in late February her plans for bringing back earmarks this year. House Democrats’ plan for appropriations earmarks will limit the amount of money for “community project funding” to 1 percent of discretionary spending, ban earmarks for for-profit entities and limit members to 10 requests per fiscal year.

The proposal will also require the Government Accountability Office to conduct an annual audit on a sampling of its earmarks and submit a report to Congress.

[House appropriators officially bring back earmarks, ending ban]

Leahy referenced the House’s plans Wednesday, saying “the House is going to have designated spending, and we will too.” 

The practice was banned in both chambers in 2011 after years of negative publicity. Two former GOP House members, Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio, went to prison as a result of earmarks-related scandals. Former President Donald Trump pardoned Cunningham before he left office.

Democrats and Republicans who support restoring earmarks both say they’d institute guardrails to ensure transparency and prevent any members or their families from benefiting financially.

For the time being, Republicans haven’t said whether they’ll earmark funds in spending bills again. Both the House and Senate GOP conferences have bans in their party rules and would need to revise or eliminate those prohibitions before their members could freely participate in the process.

Shelby said Wednesday that whether Senate Republicans earmark will be up to the caucus, which instituted a “permanent ban” in party rules in May 2019. 

“If they had earmarks in, say, 1 percent of the whole budget and the Republicans didn’t — they’d have a political advantage, so we’ll have to think it all out,” Shelby said. “I would hope that we can work together but we’ve got to see how it’s defined, what the House does.”

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