House Democrats are eagerly eyeing the chance to revive earmarks when they take the majority next year, saying it is Congress’s duty to siphon the money to pet projects — and hoping a return to pork-barrel spending will help keep back-benchers in line.
But they’re wary of taking the leap alone and say they’re hoping Senate Republicans will join them in reversing an eight-year ban.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, poised to become House majority leader when the new Congress convenes in January, told reporters he expects bipartisan support for a return to earmarks.
“To say that a member of Congress is unable to help his or her own district I think is incorrect,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We are co-equal branches — that is our authority under the Constitution. We don’t have to go hat in hand to the president and say, please, will you spend money on this, that, or the other?”
Earmarks are line items tucked into bills carving out a portion of spending for roads, bridges, parking garages, and military weapons systems at the insistence of a particular lawmaker or two.
At its height last decade, earmarks accounted for about 3 percent of discretionary federal spending.
But they drew outsized attention. Critics called it pork-barrel spending, pointing to projects such as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which would have sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska for a bridge to an island with a population of 50 people.
And out-of-control earmarking landed at least one member of Congress in jail last decade.
Stung by those controversies, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the election last month that a return to earmarking isn’t in the cards.
“We have a conference rule related to earmarks on the Senate side. I cannot imagine that will change,” he told reporters at the time.
But earmark opponents say they’re worried they won’t be able to hold the line.
When Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is retiring, tried to organize a letter of colleagues in favor of a permanent earmark ban, he was able to line up only 10 signatures out of 100 senators.
Of the 10, nine were Republicans. The sole Democrat was Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who lost her re-election race and like Mr. Flake won’t be returning to the Capitol next year.
And no less than President Trump, at the beginning of the year, urged Congress to think about restoring earmarks.
“One thing it did is it brought everybody together,” he told lawmakers at a White House meeting.
Democrats say that if they do revive earmarks, it will be within limits.
Mr. Hoyer said the spending projects would have to be reported online for the public to view, that lawmakers and their families wouldn’t be able to benefit financially, and that the spending would be restricted to the public sector and non-profit groups.
“We want to make sure that these are done open and above-board,” he said.
The issue is so politically sensitive that some lawmakers are loath to even say the word “earmark” — instead calling the practice “congressionally directed spending.”
Rep. Nita Lowey, the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, made a return to earmarking one of her key pledges to colleagues when she asked for their support to lead the panel in the new Congress.
“I will work tirelessly to ensure spending bills help address local issues in members’ districts,” she wrote to colleagues last month immediately after the midterm elections. “The caucus should also review procedures and work with the Senate to determine the most effective way to carry out our constitutional responsibilities through congressionally directed spending.”
Rep. Mike Quigley, the top Democrat on a financial services spending subcommittee, said lawmakers can restore earmarks without having another “Bridge to Nowhere” situation.
He said having lawmakers with buy-in on bills with which they are able to control some of the projects can help Congress run more smoothly.
“It gets to a broader sense of coalition-building, and sometimes that’s how these things get done,” the Illinois Democrat said, pointing to his support for a Republican lawmaker’s tunnel project that the Trump administration opposed.
“I told him I should care just as much about his tunnel as he should about my Blue Line, the transit line between O’Hare [airport in Chicago] and downtown getting done, as I should care about rebuilding the locks on the Mississippi because 42 percent of all Illinois crops go down the Mississippi,” Mr. Quigley said.
Rep. David Price, the top Democrat on a transportation spending subcommittee, said both parties support restoring earmarks, but he said the issue is so politically sensitive that lawmakers may opt for smaller, more incremental changes.
“If you had a secret ballot, we’d do it tomorrow — you know that — in both parties,” said Mr. Price, North Carolina Democrat. “It is a denial of our constitutional obligation. It [has] also gone so far in the way it’s interpreted that it ties our hands completely.”
Mr. Hoyer said he expects bipartisan, bicameral support for moving forward.
“I can’t predict [because] I don’t know the votes in the Senate on this, but I will tell you there is significant Senate involvement,” he said.
But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, was noncommittal when asked about the subject Tuesday — though he did playfully label “earmark” a pejorative term.
“I think the House Democrats had more [of] a dialogue among themselves on that,” Mr. Shelby said.
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, says he hasn’t heard a groundswell within the Senate GOP conference about reviving earmarks, and he thinks it would be a bad move.
“I’ve learned up here that sometimes you got to keep a closed mouth and open ears, and I’m willing to listen, but the burden of proof is on them because I’ve never seen earmarks work,” said Mr. Kennedy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He said he wasn’t surprised, though, that House Democrats wanted to restore the practice.
“That’s because they like to spend money like it was ditchwater,” he said. “This is all borrowed money we’re spending.”