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Earmarks’ future unclear as Republicans split ahead of midterms

Stigma has worn off the practice to some degree, unlike in 2010 midterm campaign

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik arrives for a news conference in the Capitol on July 19.
House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik arrives for a news conference in the Capitol on July 19. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Potential changes in control of one or both chambers in the midterm elections could put the practice of earmarking federal funds for local projects on the chopping block in the next Congress.

The last time Republicans recaptured the House, after the 2010 midterms, party leaders banned earmarks amid the anti-spending, tea party-fueled sentiment of the time. 

“Earmarks are a symbol of a broken Washington and emblematic of the culture of spending that has dominated Washington for far too long and must be reversed,” then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said prior to that year’s elections.

Sensing that the political winds had shifted against earmarks, Senate Democrats in control of the chamber back then went along with the ban, which took effect in 2011. But there’s no indication that today’s Senate Democrats would feel the same pressure if they retain their majority, even if Republicans retake the House as many predict.

And unlike a dozen years ago, Republicans are not nearly as unified on the issue. While anti-earmark sentiment was palpable in the 2010 campaign, it hasn’t emerged as a 2022 midterms issue. And since Democrats revived earmarks last year, their popularity has actually increased among House Republicans, with a clear majority of the GOP conference requesting projects in fiscal 2023 spending bills.

Several former Republican congressional aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed skepticism that Republicans in either chamber would end earmarking if they take control. However, the practice remains unpopular among more conservative members of the House GOP conference and a majority of Republican senators.

House dynamic

House Republicans voted in March 2021 to allow conference members to request earmarks after Democrats announced they would be bringing the practice back with public disclosure of all requests and a cap at 1 percent of regular annual discretionary spending.  

At the time, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said members wanted to have a say in where federal funding went in their districts and that Republicans have “a real concern about the administration directing where money goes.” 

McCarthy has not requested earmarks, nor has House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas. Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., however, have secured local project funds.  

Scalise’s No. 2 position is considered secure, but Stefanik faces potential competition for the No. 3 slot, including from a fellow earmarker, Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Other names floated include Georgia’s Drew Ferguson and Indiana’s Jim Banks, the current chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest House conservative bloc; neither supports earmarks.

McCarthy will face pressure from the right in the next Congress, with the ranks of moderates thinning. Both the RSC and House Freedom Caucus, a smaller but strident conservative faction, have taken official anti-earmark positions. But nearly 60 percent of the GOP conference requested earmarks this year, including more than half of the RSC despite the group’s stance.

Republicans haven’t started conversations about earmarks in a GOP-controlled House or what transparency changes to make, if any, a senior Republican aide familiar with the process said. The aide predicted that leadership will let the conference make the decision without a hand on the scales. 

Republicans now have two years of participating in the process to inform their decision-making, the aide said. Many conference members believe the Biden administration would have more authority to direct spending to liberal priorities if earmarks are eliminated, the aide said, as McCarthy pointed out last year.

One former aide said banning earmarks in the House would get “crushed” in a conference vote. Another said House GOP leaders may want to preserve earmarks as a bargaining chip to maintain conference unity during tough votes.

“I think they’ve been helpful in the process. I think they help members address problems. I think it’s been administered fairly,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the ranking member on the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, said of earmarks the past two years. “I hope we’d continue, frankly, the way we’ve operated.” 

Cole said he believes the conference’s will has not changed since last year’s vote to bless earmarking. He said he thinks McCarthy would put the issue up for another conference vote in the new Congress. “We’ve done that once. A majority of members support it; I hope they would again,” Cole said.

Most of the current 26 House GOP appropriators support earmarks. After the notable exception of Granger, who sought earmarks prior to the 2011 ban, only Maryland’s Andy Harris, currently the Agriculture Subcommittee’s ranking member, and Virginia’s Ben Cline have not requested earmarks.

Harris and Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, who isn’t an appropriator, said they didn’t know if the practice would continue in a GOP majority. But they made their preference for an earmark-free process clear.

“I’m a fiscal hawk, and I just believe that’s pork barrel spending,” Feenstra said.

But demonstrating the divide among House Republicans, Feenstra’s district abuts two Iowa districts represented by GOP earmarkers: Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

Senate in play

If Democrats retain their Senate majority and keep earmarks in that chamber, it could become a more difficult decision for House Republicans — many won’t want to miss out if senators load up bills with their own projects. And it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans would totally sit out the process in that scenario.

But unlike in the House, only about one-third of Republican senators have requested earmarks in this Congress: just 16 out of 50, with nine of those on Appropriations — numbers that are difficult to ignore if Republicans retake the Senate.

The chamber is also set to lose some high-profile earmarkers to retirement, including Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the top GOP senator on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations; James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the Armed Services panel’s top Republican; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. Potential GOP successors either have said they oppose earmarks or haven’t commented.

The Senate Republican Conference adopted a permanent earmark ban in 2019, and upheld that ban after Democrats moved to bring back the practice last year. However, conference rules are not binding, so Republicans have been able to request earmarks in the past two years. 

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott pointed to those bylaws and said Republicans would not continue earmarking if the party takes back the Senate, although the Floridian’s position doesn’t necessarily reflect the conference’s view.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who’s in line to be the top Appropriations Republican after Shelby’s retirement, wants to retain earmarks. She said the initial ban was a mistake and caused the legislative branch to cede power to the executive.

“I believe individual members of Congress have a better understanding of the needs of their districts and states than do people who are sitting in bureaucracies in Washington, no matter how well intentioned they may be,” Collins said. 

In a separate statement, Collins said the process’ transparency rules ensure that the current practice is appropriate. 

“Over the past two appropriations cycles, Congress has demonstrated that it can responsibly bring back congressionally directed spending, and I will continue to urge my colleagues to maintain this practice with these appropriate safeguards,” she said. 

Collins may not have the final word. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News in March 2021 that earmarks are “very unpopular” in his conference. 

“I represent the entire conference, and I can tell you the overwhelming majority of the Republican conference in the Senate is not in favor of going back to earmarks,” McConnell said. 

McConnell, a longtime appropriator, has not participated in the latest iteration of earmarking. But McConnell was a prolific earmarker before the ban was imposed, surprising onlookers when he shifted his position in late 2010 under pressure from conservative senators

McConnell’s current No. 2, South Dakota’s John Thune, has secured earmarks in this Congress. Wyoming’s John Barrasso and Texas’ John Cornyn — two other Senate Republicans who, like Thune, may one day seek to succeed McConnell — have not, although both earmarked prior to the 2011 ban.

Even some vocal anti-earmark Republicans worry the practice is now entrenched and would be hard to remove. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said earmarks would probably continue in a GOP-controlled Congress since it has “crossed the threshold.” 

“My vote would be absolutely no,” Braun said. “I think that was terrible that, after all those years, you finally get those out of your system and you bring them back.” 

A former Senate GOP aide said it’s likely Republicans would continue the status quo of individual senators being allowed to request earmarks or forgo them based on personal preference, instead of banning the practice altogether. 

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said Republicans have not yet had the conversation about whether to keep earmarks.

“If we get to the point in which we’re not spending the money, then I see it totally differently,” said Moran, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee. “But if the dollars are going to be spent someplace, then I think it’s a disservice to Kansans to not be able to participate.”

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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