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Leahy tees up return of earmarks in Senate spending bills

Senators won't face cap on number of project requests they can make, unlike House counterparts

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., looks out at the National Mall from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol on March 10, 2021.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., looks out at the National Mall from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol on March 10, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy on Monday officially announced a return to earmarking, clearing the way for senators to request funding for home-state projects for the first time in a decade.

The Vermont Democrat’s guidelines come two months after his House counterpart, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., announced plans for House Democrats to bring earmarks back in that chamber for the upcoming fiscal 2022 process.

The guardrails and transparency requirements Leahy announced Monday are similar to those in the House. They include capping earmarks to 1 percent of all discretionary spending, banning earmarks to for-profit entities, requiring senators to post their requests online and having the Government Accountability Office audit some earmarks every year.

Senators, however, will not be subject to a cap on the number of requests they can submit the way their House colleagues are limited to 10 per fiscal year.

House Appropriations subcommittees also have capped which accounts in each spending bill are eligible for earmarking, ranging from three to five per subcommittee. Senate Appropriators haven’t settled on which accounts will be eligible in that chamber, but they expect the list to look different than the House’s.

Opponents of lifting the ban say earmarks lead to wasteful spending and corruption. But Leahy and other backers say earmarks have nothing to do with rising deficits, while new guardrails for their use would avoid the risk of corruption.

During a floor speech announcing the decision to bring back earmarks, Leahy said lawmakers not only have the constitutional authority to determine where the federal government spends taxpayer dollars, but a deeper understanding of the communities they represent than unelected officials.  

“Every member of this chamber has their hands tied. Why? Because we ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats here in Washington when we instituted a ban on congressionally directed spending,” Leahy said. “As a result, even though we appropriate the money, we can’t even direct a tiny fraction of the tax dollars we collect from our hard-working constituents and send those tax dollars back into their communities. We turn it over to the executive branch and have no say in it.”

In addition to the new guardrails, senators will also be bound by the transparency mechanisms that went into Senate rules before appropriations earmarks were banned in 2011.

Lawmakers will need to certify in writing that neither they nor their immediate family has any financial interest in any requested project. Any request must include the lawmaker’s name, the name and location of the entity that would receive funding and the project’s purpose.

The Senate Appropriations Committee must put each earmark selected in an online, public database that includes the requesting senator’s name “as soon as practicable” after the markup.

The Senate won’t be able to hold a procedural vote known as a motion to proceed or a conference report vote until at least 48 hours after a full list of earmarks included in the bill has been posted online.

Senators can also raise a point-of-order objection to any conference report that includes an earmark that wasn’t included in the original House or Senate bill.

[Senate GOP Conference upholds earmarks ‘ban’]

Leahy’s earmarks announcement on Monday came just five days after Senate Republicans kept their ban on earmarks in internal party rules. But that decision won’t prevent GOP senators who want to request directed spending from doing so.

Since the GOP ban is nonbinding, Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and others say they are free to request “congressionally directed spending” without any repercussions. 

Several GOP senators, including Missouri’s Roy Blunt, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Maine’s Susan Collins, have all said they plan to request earmarks.  

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