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Rep. Tom Cole seeks to limit earmark-driven political headaches

Republicans opposed Democratic-backed projects in recent bills related to the LGBTQ community and abortion access

Cole arrives for the House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cole arrives for the House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican appropriators are weighing changes to the chamber’s earmarking process in order to limit the number of “political” project requests, new House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Monday.

Cole told reporters Monday that while major changes to the earmark guidelines are unlikely as appropriators rush to get their fiscal 2025 bills underway, GOP appropriators want to block projects that could cause them headaches back home.

“Some of these are unobjectionable, some of them create political problems for people,” Cole said. “That’s just the reality of it. I shouldn’t have to have a political problem in my district because I voted for a bill that had your earmark in it.”

House Republicans took umbrage at a handful of earmarks Democrats proposed last year that would have supported the LGBTQ community, and stripped a few from the House’s version of the Transportation-HUD bill.

Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., voted against the final fiscal 2024 package due to earmarks from the Senate that supported the LGBTQ community and hospitals that perform abortions.

[Cole secures Appropriations gavel ahead of fraught budget cycle]

Cole wouldn’t say what changes he is considering, saying only that guidance would be out shortly.

“We don’t have a lot of time this year to be messing around with format,” Cole said. “We’re going to see what we can do to tweak it.”

Members in both parties submit earmarks that the other party would find objectionable, Cole said, noting during the fiscal 2024 process he had to tell Republican members who asked for funding for a shooting range and for a roof repair for a religious facility that it would not be possible to meet their requests.

“All I’m asking is people be considerate and not let these things become issues,” Cole said.

One major change Cole could pursue next year is reinstating House earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education bill, a subcommittee Cole was the top Republican on for six years. Former Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, changed the guidelines to prevent House lawmakers from earmarking that measure last year.

Cole said last month that the lack of earmarks in that section of the final spending package handicapped House Republicans in fiscal 2024 talks, as they had “nothing to trade back and forth” with the Senate.

Fiscal 2025 process

Cole wants appropriators to get to work quickly on the next set of bills, and said he is waiting for a decision from Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., on the topline spending level.

“He seems to me like a pretty busy guy right now,” said Cole, who defended the Johnson’s job performance and called the speaker “very underestimated.”

While appropriators were unable to move two bills — the Labor-HHS-Education and Commerce-Justice-Science — out of committee last year, Cole said he is confident Republicans can report out all 12 this year. Last year, he said the lack of movement on the House floor discouraged the committee from advancing those last two measures.

“I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said. “I don’t think it’s hard to move them out of committee.”

However, Cole will have to navigate a panel with four House Freedom Caucus members, enough to block bills from advancing if they so choose.

A self-proclaimed “defense hawk,” Cole said he believes military spending should increase more than the 1 percent allowed under last year’s debt limit law. But he said lawmakers would live within that agreement.

Cole said he wished appropriators and Appropriations Committee staff were in the room during those negotiations last summer, and said the fact that agreement included “side deals” not written into legislative text has complicated appropriators’ fiscal 2025 work.

“The debate is, what is the [debt limit law] level,” he said. “Is it what’s written, does it include side deals, and what are those side deals, and what do they amount to? And there’s disagreement about that.”

One idea that was floated during those talks but not ultimately included in the final debt limit package — a bipartisan commission to recommend changes to shore up Social Security — has been a long-term priority for Cole.

Cole said he would continue to push for such a commission to be established, and he has proposed legislation that would set one up.

However, Cole said the budget cannot be balanced on the back of discretionary spending alone — the amount controlled by appropriators, accounting for less than one-third of the federal budget — and he acknowledged it would be unlikely that Congress would take any action on Social Security during an election year.

Supplemental packages

More pressing are emergency funding packages: aid for Israel and Ukraine and for rebuilding Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, which collapsed in March.

Cole said he isn’t sure if Johnson will move an Israel-only supplemental following Iran’s attack or if Johnson will move a wider package also including money for Ukraine, Taiwan and potentially money to restock munitions the U.S. has spent fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Clearly, with what happened to Israel, I think there is really strong bipartisan determination to move pretty quickly on that portion, and I’ll leave it to the speaker as to whether he wants to add anything else, or other components,” he said.

On bridge reconstruction, Cole said the federal government is already helping with the cleanup, and he encouraged Maryland officials to take their time and provide an accurate estimate for the cost of rebuilding. It took officials nearly three months to assess the damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Cole said.

Cole said he thinks the Baltimore bridge money should not have other priorities attached, and said he generally wants to avoid a “Christmas tree” approach to supplemental spending.

“I’m not in a hurry on this, but we’ll move at the appropriate time,” he said. “I don’t think it ought to become a politically contentious matter.”

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