Earmark Ban Seen as Persisting, Despite Prior Ryan Use

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Oct. 22 — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) overcame concerns from House Republican hard-liners over his stances on the 2008 financial system bailout and immigration when he won the House Freedom Caucus's support for his House speaker bid.

But Ryan has another stance in his past that could potentially complicate his nascent campaign to replace House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): until 2008, he sought congressional earmarks in annual appropriations bills. Boehner often noted he never sought earmarks and points to banning them as one of House Republicans' biggest budgetary accomplishments, even though the amount spent on earmarks was relatively little in terms of the overall federal budget.

With anti-spending hard-liners like those in the Freedom Caucus ascendant in the Republican party, the ban is unlikely to be changed, no matter who replaces Boehner. And while Ryan was by no means a prolific earmarker, his past use of them and rhetoric shows a more nuanced approach than Boehner's.

Money for Buses, Scenic Trail

According to data from the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Ryan last received earmarks in fiscal year 2008 funding bills—a total of about $5.4 million from three programs. They included $735,000 for the bus transit system in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., the only earmark sought solely by him, as well as a separate earmark worth $3.3 million for statewide bus systems. A third earmark was for $1.4 million for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a nearly 1,200-mile hiking trail that stretches from the east side of Wisconsin to the west side. Beginning in 2008, with the markup of the fiscal 2009 funding bills, Ryan had no earmarks listed in the TCS database.

House Republicans imposed their own earmark ban on a party-wide basis in 2009 with the 111th Congress, and then put it in House rules when they took control of the chamber in 2011 in the 112th Congress. During Democratic control, former Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) had earmarks in bills disclosed publicly for the first time.

Along those lines, Ryan has a now-blank page on his website dedicated to earmark disclosure. “Taxpayers were rightfully angered to learn of their hard-earned tax dollars squandered on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska and the Rain Forest Museum in Iowa,” according to the site. “More troubling than these egregious examples of waste is the corruptibility of the process. Earmarks aren’t inherently problematic, but when former members of Congress are in jail for selling earmarks, there’s something seriously wrong with the process.”

Notably, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who said he would withdraw from the speaker's race if Ryan was in, was one of a handful of members with no earmarks during the fiscal 2008-2010 period covered by the TCS data.

‘Helped Lead the Charge.'

Still, no one expects the earmarks to make a comeback without Boehner. “I fully expect the Republican conference will maintain the moratorium,” said TCS Vice President Steve Ellis.

Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said, “Paul helped lead the charge to ban earmarks and has no plans to change his position if he becomes speaker.”

Ellis said Ryan was not a prolific earmarker compared to other lawmakers. “There were a lot of lawmakers that were doing earmarks,” Ellis said. “He gets credit for giving them up before he had to.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, said the issue did not come up during the group's talks with Ryan in recent days. “If the man changes the way we operate the House, we really don't care,” he said.

Ryan made his candidacy official late Oct. 22. In a letter to his Republican colleagues, Ryan said, “I never thought I’d be speaker. But I pledged to you that if I could be a unifying figure, then I would serve—I would go all in. After talking with so many of you, and hearing your words of encouragement, I believe we are ready to move forward as a one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker.”

Earlier in the day, Ryan received endorsements from the largest intra-party House Republican group, the Republican Study Committee, as well as from a group of more moderate Republicans known as the Tuesday Group. The former group has more than 170 members, while the latter has 55 members.

Late Oct. 21, Ryan received “support” but not an official endorsement from a supermajority of the Freedom Caucus, which had led the efforts to oust Boehner. But the group, comprising about 40 members, hedged on whether to accept Ryan's demand to make changes in the procedure for toppling a sitting speaker. “While no consensus exists among members of the House Freedom Caucus regarding Chairman Ryan's preconditions for serving, we believe that these issues can be resolved within our Conference in due time,” the group said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman in Washington at hrothman@bna.com.