Republicans Considering Rolling Back Earmark Ban

Critics say move would be a 'rebuke' to Trump voters

November 15, 2016

Republicans may overturn the ban on earmarks when House of Representatives members vote on its rules on Wednesday, in one of its first acts following the election of Donald Trump.

An amendment offered by Reps. John Culberson (R., Texas), Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), and Thomas Rooney (R., Fla.) would scale back the moratorium on pork barrel spending, which has been banned since Republicans took control of the House in 2010.

"In order to restore Congress’s constitutional duty and allow the more effective use of the power of the purse in a way that is transparent and responsible, the standing order for the 115th Congress relating to an earmark moratorium is amended," the amendment states.

The proposal would not lift the ban entirely, but would allow for earmarks if the spending were allocated for the federal government, including the Department of Defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Earmarks could also be offered for states and local governments, such as public utilities and parks. House members sponsoring an earmark would also be "identified," and the spending would have to be initiated in committee.

Another restriction is that the spending "does not increase total spending for any fiscal year."

The Republican conference will vote by secret ballot on the amendment when it votes for its rules for the 115th Congress.

Republicans implemented a self-imposed ban on earmarks after voter outrage to abuse of pork barrel spending, such as the $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. Recent earmarks include $4 million for "fish passage," and $10 million for an energy program that completed its mission in 1981.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, has noted that earmarks have lived on despite the ban. Congress approved over $5 billion in earmarks this year.

"It is stunning that barely a week after voters made clear their opposition to business as usual in Washington, certain members of Congress would push to restore a pork-barrel system that is the epitome of everything that is wrong in this town," said the group's spokesman, Curtis Kalin. "Taxpayer money is not a lawmaker’s personal piggy bank, with dollars doled out as he or she sees fit, regardless of merit or importance."

"This appalling plan to bring back clearly wasteful and corrupt earmarks should not be granted under any circumstances," Kalin said.

Other conservative groups expressed outrage at the possibility of rolling back earmarks just a week after the election of Donald Trump, and sweeping Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

"Americans in both parties are fed up with the cronyism and corruption in Washington, and seven days ago they delivered a stunning message to the nation’s ruling class," said Michael A. Needham, the chief executive officer of Heritage Action. "Any attempt to roll back the longstanding ban on congressional earmarks—the lubricant that empowers politicians to cut bad deals—would amount to a rebuke of those voters. Americans deserve an honest, transparent government that is working for everyone, not simply doling out favors to a well connected few."

"Bringing back the earmark process that corrupted Washington for decades would be a direct insult to millions of Americans who signaled last week that they’re tired of lawmakers putting special interests ahead of taxpayers," said Freedom Partners vice president of policy Andy Koenig. "Hardworking Americans want their tax dollars spent wisely and transparently — lawmakers should flatly reject any effort to reinstitute earmarks."

"I supported the earmark ban in 2011 and still support it now," said Rep. Rooney. " What we’re suggesting is for the Republican Conference to reexamine the traditional role of an earmark, which was … to empower Members of Congress to draw on their knowledge of their home districts and direct existing federal dollars to deserving public entities in their communities."

"We are not repealing the earmark ban," said Rep. Culberson. "We are restoring the spending power that the Founding Fathers entrusted to Congress, and making the process totally transparent from start to finish. This amendment ensures that our elected officials control how our taxpayer dollars are spent and not unelected bureaucrats in the backrooms of federal agencies."

Request for comment from Rep. Rogers was not immediately returned.

Rooney proposed bringing back earmarks earlier this year, saying that allowing earmarks is a "toe in the water." The lawmaker said that earmarks are necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers because the agency depends on the executive branch for grant funding.

"There is no recourse for us, other than to write the administration a letter, begging them," Rooney said. "And they can tell us to take a hike if they want to and they do that a lot. Especially in my district."