House Republicans are about to take the first steps to revive earmarks, with officials planning to hold hearings early this year to look at how they might ease back into the practice, The Washington Times has learned, as a growing number of lawmakers think they have surrendered too much power by forgoing them.
Earmarks are funding for the special projects that lawmakers demand for their districts, often tucked into massive spending bills — directing money back home for bridges and parking garages, Pentagon research or roads and river levees. Supporters call them “targeted spending,” while critics deride the practice as the epitome of pork-barrel politics.
There are no firm plans to restore the practice in the near term, but hearings expected later this month and led by Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, make good on a promise by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, in late 2016 to study the issue.
“The time is right,” said Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican who is one of those pushing for a test run of earmarks so Congress can prove it can handle the practice responsibly.
A return to earmarks would be a bold move, potentially giving party leaders more control over the power of the purse — and another tool to reel in maverick lawmakers. But it could also reignite the troubled days of the “Bridge to Nowhere” and other earmark battles that divided Republicans and even landed people in prison.
“The last time the Republicans ran a congressional earmark factory, they lost control of Congress,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who spent years on Capitol Hill. “In 2006, when the Democrats took Congress, the No. 1 issue according to voters was pork and corruption. You had Jack Abramoff, daily news coverage of campaign contributors getting earmarks. It was a political disaster.”
Mr. Riedl said Republicans have shown they can win elections without bringing home the pork, “so there’s really no argument for bringing them back.”
Mr. Culberson, though, calls the excesses of a decade ago “knuckleheads [who] went overboard.” He and other earmark defenders say they can prove Congress can direct spending without inviting corruption.
As House speaker, John A. Boehner was the key figure in ending earmarks. He challenged fellow Republicans to give up pork as a way of drawing distinctions with Democrats after Republicans lost congressional majorities in 2007, then imposed a full ban once Republicans regained control of the House in 2011.
A majority of Congress has been elected since then, meaning they have never served on Capitol Hill when pork was the coin of the realm. But they are hearing from senior lawmakers who say important local decisions are being made by federal agencies while ignoring the input of members of Congress.
“Members are increasingly realizing how much power they gave up to the Executive Branch,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican and vice chairman of the Rules Committee.
Mr. Culberson points to the Houston area and last year’s devastating hurricane and flooding as an example of where earmarks could be helpful.
He said Houston needs a third reservoir, but the Army Corps of Engineers is reluctant to front-load the money for such a major project. “It would take forever, if at all, to get the Army Corps of Engineers moving on it,” he said.
In the end, Mr. Culberson — who is chairman of one of the spending subcommittees, and has more power over the purse than most other lawmakers — said he was able to draw up language in the recent disaster relief bill to make clear that Harris County should get the third reservoir by writing a specific set of definitions for how to spend the money.
But as he was describing the hurdles to a reporter, a lawmaker from South Carolina chimed in that those who aren’t on the Appropriations Committee don’t have that option. Instead, he said, rank-and-file lawmakers have to go beg spending committee members to add money to specific accounts, then the rank-and-file go to agencies and say they were responsible for getting the extra cash and suggest how they want it spent.
“Here’s what they’ll do with that,” said Mr. Culberson, balling up a piece of paper and tossing it into the flames of a nearby fireplace.
Mr. Riedl, though, questioned whether Congress really has the expertise to be weighing in.
“Lawmakers and congressional staff are not qualified to go through hundreds of government grant applications and audit both the applicant and the program,” he said. “I worked in Congress for 16 years — 23-year-old staffers can’t go through Army Corps projects.”
At their height, earmarks accounted for perhaps 1 percent of all federal spending, but the small dollar amount was overshadowed by some major stinkers.
The Times came across one earmark that sent $100,000 to a local library that didn’t even need the cash, and another that sought $100,000 to build bus shelters in a wealthy Florida community — and got $250,000 instead.
The most famous earmark of all was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a request for hundreds of millions of dollars to build a bridge to an Alaskan island with a population of about 50 people. That earmark was first approved, then later revoked — though the money stayed in Alaska’s coffers and wasn’t allocated until last year.
The debate over returning to earmarks appears to be leaving some Republicans tongue-tied.
Though Mr. Ryan has been a major voice in the debate, his spokeswoman avoided repeated phone or email messages over the past three weeks asking about the hearings and the speaker’s stance on renewed earmarking.
Several other lawmakers who have pushed for a return to earmarks also didn’t return messages from The Times.
House Republicans were on the verge of voting to renew earmarks in November 2016 when Mr. Ryan urged them to hold off. The earmark supporters said they had enough votes, but Mr. Ryan told them it would have sent a bad signal, just days after Donald Trump’s stunning drain-the-swamp election victory, to vote to restore one of the activities most associated with the swamp.
Instead, Mr. Ryan promised to allow a study of the issue early in 2017. That study never took place.
Mr. Culberson said the party leaders didn’t want to push the issue last year, saying Republicans needed to prove they could accomplish big things. But now, with tax cuts and repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate under their belts, he said the time is right.
He wants to start out slow, testing a return to earmarks on Army Corps flood projects. He also wants strict controls: Every project would need to be a local government request, would have to be part of the bill from the first subcommittee through to the floor, with the lawmaker’s name attached throughout.
Mr. Cole would like to go broader than Army Corps projects, but he also ticked off a long checklist of safeguards such as lawmakers’ names attached to the projects, no private earmarks allowed and no adding to the overall costs of spending bills.
Republicans said any move to restore earmarking would have to be bipartisan. They said they wanted Democrats to be on board in order to head off any politicization of the issue.