A trio of respected Republicans is pushing for the return of some earmarks to Capitol Hill, saying it’s time to restore Congress’ full power of the purse — and drawing passionate pushback from conservative groups who say the GOP would betray its voters if it returned to pork barrel spending.
A vote on the rules change is expected behind closed doors among House Republicans on Wednesday, and if it’s successful, the GOP will try to make a change for the entire Congress.
The three lawmakers said they’re not looking for a return to the freewheeling days of the previous decade, when earmarks ran amok and a series of Republicans faced criminal prosecution in earmark-related investigations.
But they did say Congress has ceded an important role the country’s founders intended.
“We are not repealing the earmark ban. We are restoring the spending power that the Founding Fathers entrusted to Congress, and making the process totally transparent from start to finish,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican. “This amendment ensures that our elected officials control how our taxpayer dollars are spent and not unelected bureaucrats in the backrooms of federal agencies.”
Conservative pressure groups, however, said restoring earmarks would show a political tin ear just a week after President-elect Donald Trump won by promising voters he’d end cronyism in Washington.
“This is a test of whether Republicans are listening to the American people,” said former Rep. David McIntosh, who is now president of the Club for Growth. “Earmarks represent the worst of inside-the-Beltway gamesmanship by enticing Members to vote for big-government bills with the lure of getting tax dollars for big projects back in their districts.”
Earmarks are projects that members of Congress write into bills, specifically directing federal taxpayers’ money to key needs back home.
They never accounted for much spending in the scheme of the federal budget. At their height in 2006 they were $29 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, or about 1 percent of all federal spending.
But they became a symbol of Republicans’ mismanagement of Washington, when spending and deficits ballooned. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham even landed in jail after going so far as to create a “bribe menu” listing prices he demanded from companies in exchange for securing contracts for them.
The GOP’s current congressional leaders, who used to take part in earmarks before undergoing a conversion, say they doubt Congress is ready for a change.
“I don’t think so,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week.
A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said he too remains opposed to restoring the practice.
The ban was championed by former House Speaker John A. Boehner, a lifelong opponent of earmarks who dragged his party to his position as he helped it retake control of the House in the 2010 elections.
But the ensuing years have also seen a Congress that’s struggled to get its work done, and analysts say that’s partly because of the loss of earmarks.
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, said earmarks help rope rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties into the process of legislating, giving them a reason to work on bills rather than simply oppose them.
Having a project to tout back home gives them buy-in rather than forcing them into an up-or-down vote on legislation they’re not invested in.
“There’s a balance where we have to get members more involved in actually legislating,” he said. “The reason why no one’s accountable is that there are so few people making the actual final decisions.”
Mr. Strand also said there’s a way to structure earmarks so they aren’t abused. Rather than tucking them into massive spending bills, he said they should be debated openly as part of authorizing legislation — the policy bills that Congress is supposed to tackle on a regular basis.
Mr. Strand said that would promote transparency, because lawmakers would have to be able to defend the spending they’re requesting for their districts back home.
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, a Florida Republican who is part of the trio pushing to pare back the ban, said Congress is forgoing its own powers under Article I of the Constitution to direct spending.
“I supported the earmark ban in 2011 and still support it now. What my colleagues and I don’t support is the unintended consequence of giving unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies in Washington, D.C., a blank check and letting them decide how to spend our limited taxpayer dollars,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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