House Republicans shelved a debate to restore earmarks Wednesday after fierce pushback from conservative groups who said it would be a betrayal of voters who elected Donald Trump, and a final appeal from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
But the issue isn’t going away. Mr. Ryan instead promised to study earmarks over the next few months, giving those who want to see a return of congressional control hope that they will soon find a way to regain authority.
Lawmakers said there appeared to be strong support for overturning the six-year-old ban, but Mr. Ryan was persuasive in at least putting it off, saying the country just had a “drain the swamp” election and undoing the ban behind closed doors would have gotten the GOP off on the wrong foot.
Instead, Mr. Ryan promised a vote by the end of March on a replacement plan, bowing to a growing sense among Republicans that they’ve let the president have his way for too long.
“Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to create a transparent and accountable process to restore Congress’ constitutional spending authority by the end of the first quarter of 2017” said Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican who offered one of the key plans to restore earmarks. “My colleagues and I agreed to withdraw our amendment based on the speaker’s promise because we are confident we can develop a method to handle directed congressional spending in a way that gives constituents confidence that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent effectively.”
Earmarks are the local-interest projects lawmakers slipped into bills, directing money back home. Even at their peak in 2006 they accounted for about 1 percent of total federal spending, but they were abused by some lawmakers who traded them for money or gifts.
Some lawmakers also accused congressional leaders of using earmarks to grease the legislative process, insisting that rank-and-file members must support bloated spending bills in order to get their earmarks approved. The practice ballooned under Republicans in the first half of the last decade.
After projects such as the famed “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska drew attention to pork-barrel spending, however, Congress was forced to act.
Democrats imposed limits when they took control in 2007, and former House Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican and longtime earmark opponent, won a hard-fought ban on the practice when the GOP took control of the House in 2011. He maintained the ban through force of will, aided by a cadre of committed supporters.
But Mr. Boehner retired from office in 2015, and the earmark conversation was reignited.
A number of Republicans said they’ve been pushed to restore the practice after watching President Obama abuse the spending process.
“What happened is that this present administration took the money for water projects and decided who would be the winner and who would be the loser, not based upon the feedback of the Corps of Engineers or members of Congress,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican. “I think that was a mistake. Once again they overplayed their hand, so we’re trying to balance that out.”
Wednesday’s action came in a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference, where the GOP was debating the rules it would adopt to run the House next year.
One lawmaker floated a plan to restore earmarks only for Army Corps of Engineers projects, while another offered a broader plan to allow for earmarks so long as they are public projects run by a government at the local, state or federal level.
Both plans were withdrawn after Mr. Ryan’s plea.
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who supported lifting the ban, said it made sense to give Mr. Ryan a chance to study the issue, and said Republicans decided that holding a partisan vote in secret, so soon after the election, was probably going to backfire.
“The speaker’s made a good point. I trust him,” Mr. Cole said. “Maybe we want to do this with our friends on the other side of the Capitol, on the other side of the aisle. So let’s give our leadership a chance to think about this. But I think there’s a sentiment that we’re giving away too much of our power to the executive branch.”
He said that while there were abuses of earmarks in the past, the pendulum has swung too far the other way to where Congress has little say in specific spending decisions anymore.
But former Sen. Tom Coburn, who retired two years ago, said Congress can’t be trusted with the corrupting influence of earmarks.
“Washington, D.C. is broken and no one is interested in fixing it,” he said. “The arrogance of power is just as dangerous in the hands of Republicans as it is in Democrats.”
He said the solution is to call a new constitutional convention sparked by the states, with the goal of putting fiscal restraints on the national government.