It didn’t take long for earmarks to try for a comeback. After the Tea Party swept the 2010 midterm elections, House Republicans used their majority power to put an end to pork-barrel projects. Now 15 months later, the Republican caucus is split over bringing them back or ending them once and for all.
In a closed-door conference meeting in early March, Republican leaders debated how to get enough support to pass the controversial transportation reauthorization bill. Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, used the opportunity to suggest reviving earmarks to encourage members to support legislation that directly helps their districts.
The reaction at the meeting was mixed. Some caucus members want to bring back the pet projects in another form in the next Congress. Mr. Rogers told Reuters that House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, is considering forming a committee to study earmarks, but Mr. Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said, “There is no ‘earmark committee’ being formed.”
Others in the caucus remain firmly opposed. “Earmarks aren’t coming back.” Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the 165-member Republican Study Committee (RSC) told The Washington Times. “Why would anyone want to make it easier to round up votes for bad legislation?”
Freshman Rep. Tim Scott opposes even small earmarks because they lead to the passage of much more expensive bills. “Obamacare is at the very least a $2.6 trillion new entitlement that passed by having a couple hundred million in earmarks,” the South Carolina Republican said in an interview. “I think we have probably changed the course of our financial history more significantly because of earmarks than probably anything else.”
Those worried that bridges to nowhere are making a comeback want them banned for good. The Senate recently gave up the special-interest projects through 2013. House Republicans passed the ban in their conference rules for the 112th Congress. “If anything, we need to strengthen the earmark ban,” said Mr. Jordan. “We should put it into the official rules of the House and make it permanent.”
A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, that would eliminate the pork spending failed by one vote in the upper chamber in February. GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney endorsed the permanent ban. Technically, one Congress can’t bind the rules for another, but the concept is to truly end the practice, not reform it.
A vocal minority - perhaps slight majority - of the Republican conference prefers “reform” next year. These members have a point that earmarks help them represent their districts’ interests better by directing federal tax dollars to match their constituents’ specific needs. Sooner or later, however, leadership is going to use such projects to cut backroom deals.
“When you’re spending $3.8 trillion a year, there’s a lot of opportunity for shenanigans, some ethical and some not,” Mr. Scott explained. “Earmarks in most cases are on the side of legal, but I’m not quite sure that they are always ethical.” That’s why congressional pork projects should be allowed to rest in peace.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.