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Earmark ban another wrinkle for labor, health, education bill

The largest nondefense spending bill covers controversial areas with divergent policy priorities for the two parties

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a senior appropriator, said Democrats would not support the Labor-HHS-Education or other other spending bills with the cuts that Republicans are seeking.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a senior appropriator, said Democrats would not support the Labor-HHS-Education or other other spending bills with the cuts that Republicans are seeking. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans’ new restrictions on earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill could further imperil passage of an already difficult bill.

Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, released guidance Tuesday night banning “community project funding” from the Labor-HHS-Education measure, along with the Financial Services and Defense spending bills.

The Labor-HHS-Education bill is the largest nondefense spending bill, at roughly $227 billion in the fiscal 2023 omnibus package, and covers controversial areas with divergent policy priorities for the two parties. The bill included $2.7 billion in earmarks in the omnibus.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a senior appropriator who leads the Financial Services panel, said he believes the earmark ban will make the Labor-HHS-Education bill harder to pass.

“Labor-HHS is always hard to pass, it doesn’t need any help being harder to pass,” Womack said. “In any bill, you want to create a circumstance where people want to vote for it. So, I rest my case.”

While passing the Labor-HHS-Education bill is an uphill battle every year, Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s promise to write the fiscal 2024 appropriations bills at the fiscal 2022 topline level already was complicating its prospects.

Agencies and programs in that title of the fiscal 2023 omnibus received a comparably slimmer increase than some other nondefense funding measures, about 7 percent above the prior year. But with Republicans expected to largely protect the defense and veterans budgets, cuts needed in other domestic and foreign aid bills could push north of 20 percent in order to meet the austerity pledge McCarthy made.

The Republicans’ very slim House majority adds another wrinkle, as a Labor-HHS-Education bill featuring steep cuts would be unlikely to win a single Democratic vote. Banning earmarks — which historically have been used to grease the wheels of spending bills — may only make that task more difficult.

No Democrat is likely to support the GOP-written appropriations bills that feature cuts at the level that McCarthy and Republicans are pursuing, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro said Wednesday.

DeLauro, D-Conn., recalled that during appropriations cycles in the early 2010s, Labor-HHS-Education bills did not move as proposed cuts faced bipartisan opposition.

“Going to 2022 numbers, overall — it’s [Labor-HHS-Education], its [Transportation-HUD] — it’s catastrophic, in terms of the human needs that these 12 bills deal with,” said DeLauro, who’s also the top Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

‘More volatile by nature’

Others believe that the bill is such a challenge, with debates over both the allocations and policy riders, that eliminating earmarks won’t determine whether or not the bill will pass.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., the Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, said earmarks approved by both parties have helped challenging appropriations bills get passed previously. However, he said the Labor-HHS-Education bill will be hard to pass regardless of whether members have earmarks in it.

“The [Labor-HHS-Education] bill, by its very nature, the great depth and breadth of that great subcommittee, is a little more volatile by nature,” he said. “In this case, I don’t think it will impede the passage of the bill. But it’s definitely something we have used in the past, both sides have used in the past.”

DeLauro said the projects included in the Labor-HHS-Education are worthy of being funded, and pointed to money that she secured in the fiscal 2023 omnibus for improvements to the Connecticut Hospice facility in her district.

“The projects are worthy projects,” she said. “And I think they are helpful in terms of passing the bills, I think that was true in the last go-round.”

DeLauro said Democrats are still reviewing the new earmark guidance, including the new requirement to prove a “federal nexus” for projects, before issuing their own guidance for members.

The Senate will continue to allow earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education and Financial Services bills, making an eventual conference negotiation more difficult, if the process gets that far; that chamber hasn’t allowed Defense earmarks for the last two appropriations cycles.

Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate will continue to fund projects in his bill, which he said boost economic development.

“House Republicans are trying to strip away resources that directly support our small businesses, drive economic opportunity, and boost innovation and entrepreneurship in our states,” Van Hollen, D-Md., said. “These congressionally directed funds have provided a vital lifeline to our communities.”

First the bills need to get to conference, however, and to do that, the House needs to be able to get unified GOP support given they won’t find much, if any, backing on the Democratic side.

The House Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee’s new chairman, Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., is arguing that the goal of the increased restrictions is to win over Republicans who have been hesitant to support appropriations bills in the past.

Aderholt said banning earmarks from the Labor-HHS-Education measure will allow Republicans who have criticized appropriations bills to explain votes in favor of them in the new Congress.

“This is a way for them, I think, to go back and say, we aren’t doing things as normal,” he said. “We’re doing things that are different now.”

However, the question remains whether anti-spending Republicans, including members of the Freedom Caucus, will vote for any appropriations bills.

“That will be what we will find out,” Aderholt said.

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