- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2021

As Congress took more steps toward restarting the earmark factory this week, experts said strict limits on the number and types of requests for special spending projects will be critical to preventing the goof-ups of the past.

Senate Republicans headed behind closed doors Wednesday to ponder their approach after Democrats, who now control the chamber, said they’ll restore the practice of earmarking after a decade’s slumber.

They emerged to say they had maintained a policy prohibiting use of earmarks — but also made clear the ban isn’t binding.

“It’s up to the individual,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican and a fierce earmark proponent who said the GOP shouldn’t unilaterally disarm them. “Democrats are going to use the earmarks, and House Republicans are going to use them. Are we going to give the Democrats in the Senate $8 billion to use against us?”

Earmarks are roaring back this year after Democrats took full control of both chambers and ended a decade-long moratorium that the GOP enforced.

That ban ensued after abuses that saw several lawmakers head to prison over corruption cases that involved sending earmarks to friends and donors.

Mr. Shelby insisted Wednesday that “the old earmark days — they’re gone.”

Experts have plenty of suggestions for how to make sure those abuses don’t come back.

One long-time Senate staffer said every earmark request should be disclosed, and members should be required to certify they won’t personally benefit, nor will their families, staff or campaign donors.

The staffer also suggested requiring each request to be accompanied by an explanation of why the recipient couldn’t have applied for money under an existing grant program. And the staffer said any lawmaker whose earmark turns out to be a boondoggle — defined as funding a project that’s over budget or behind schedule — should be slapped with a timeout from future earmarks.

Another possible check would be an automatic rescission of earmarks where only a little bit of the allocated money has actually been spent after a decade, or what former Sen. Jeff Flake dubbed “Jurassic pork.”

In a 2015 report he pointed to nearly $6 billion in projects inserted into the 2005 highway bill hadn’t been spent a decade later.

Michael McKenna, a former top legislative aide in the Trump White House, said numerical limits are critical, but also unlikely, given the dynamics on Capitol Hill.

“If they were serious, they would limit it to one earmark per member,” said Mr. McKenna, who now writes a column for The Washington Times. “Once you open the door, it will be impossible to close it.”

Matthew Kambrod, a retired Army colonel who became a lobbyist, has suggested following something called the Thurmond Rule, after the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Thurmond had a policy that if the industry lobbied for a plus-up in funding for a program, he would support it for a few years. But if after three years the Pentagon wasn’t backing the funding, it meant the program wasn’t important enough.

Mr. Kambrod, writing in his 2007 book “Lobbying for Defense,” said that time frame should probably be four years, since that’s how long it can take for a program to prove its value.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has its own list of reforms that includes banning “airdropped” earmarks, or those added to a bill after it’s been through both houses separately, but before the final compromise version is sent back to both chambers for final approval.

The BPC also suggested having a watchdog, such as the Government Accountability Office, randomly audit a sample of earmarks and if any misuse of funds is found, there should be a way to claw back money.

Senators are still working out rules to govern earmarks, but House Democrats have revealed the list of guidelines they’ll impose on the process, and they adopted some of the experts’ suggestions.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, said lawmakers must post all requests online at the time they are submitted, and must certify they and their families have no financial interest in the projects.

Earmarks will only be allowed for state, local or nonprofit entities.

And she agreed with the BPC’s suggestion that GAO audit a sample of projects.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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