GOP Leaders to Look at Reviving Earmarks After Rules Scare

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Nov. 16 — House Republican leaders told rank-and-file members they would take a look at reviving legislative earmarks in coming months after a rules change to ease the ban came close to being adopted at a party meeting.

“We’re having a discussion. We’ll continue the discussion. It’s all within the Article I powers,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. Members leaving the party rules meeting Nov. 16 said leaders had agreed to try to find a way by the end of March to address issues raised by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who proposed easing the anti-earmark ban on Army Corps of Engineers water resources development projects.

The earmark ban was put in place on a party-wide basis by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and then formalized into a House rule when Republicans took control of the chamber after the 2010 elections. It prohibits specific projects from being included in bill texts or committee reports at the request of lawmakers to benefit their districts. The Nov. 16 meeting was to agree to party rules for the 115th Congress, many of which will also be set into House rules by the Republican majority.

While Rooney withdrew his amendment, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it and a similar amendment by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) would likely have passed had they not been withdrawn.

Political, Process Considerations

“That would be my assessment. It was pretty clear from the number of people speaking and the crowd reaction, that had the two amendments gone forward, they would have passed,” Cole said.

“There are political considerations. There are process considerations,” he said. “I think what the speaker and the leadership are trying to do is make sure that we go through a process that is transparent, that is open, that makes sure we think about this and that we build in—if we go down this road—all the appropriate safeguards and do it in a way the American people can trust.”

While the earmark ban when it was passed was hailed as a victory for fiscal conservatism by Republicans, detractors said it would not change the amount of federal money spent on projects, but instead only who decided which projects would be built. McCarthy said giving lawmakers more leeway over deciding on Army Corps of Engineers projects, which often include harbor dredging and inland river flood control, should not be seen as easing up on spending discipline in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory Nov. 8.

“We’re not spending any more money. What it was is putting accountability into the Corps,” McCarthy said.

The issue is likely to be a divisive one for Republicans. Prior to the House earmark ban, Democrats had insisted on a system of disclosure, where earmarks were publicly linked with their proponents. But that was not enough for Republicans, who decided to end the practice over scattered objections within the conference.

In the Senate, two Republican ex-House members reflected the debate.

“There are ways, I think, for the Congress to reassert itself constitutionally without raising unnecessary concerns about earmarks,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.

Feeding the Alligators

But Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the proponents of the House ban when he was a member there, said he hoped the moratorium would not be lifted.

“We’ll deal with that in January here, but to try to bring back what—more than any other thing—cost us the majority in 2006?” he said. “People forget fast how abused that system was. Sixteen thousand earmarks spread across appropriations bills, some of my colleagues in jail. ‘Pay-to-play’ was rampant.”

“You don’t drain the swamp by feeding pork to the alligators,” Flake said.

The House Republican conference adopted a rule on budget scoring of land swaps that was proposed by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and a proposal by Rep. Luke Messer (R- Ind.) requiring a committee hearing be held on a bill if more than half the Republican conference co-sponsors it and those co-sponsors include one-third of Republican committee members.

The change would mean a powerful committee chairman could not bottle up legislation that had broad support within the conference, Messer said.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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