House Republicans are wading into an election-year fight over pork-barrel spending.
Republicans on the House Rules Committee plan to revive a debate over earmarks in hearings launching next week, even as members of their own party blast the banned practice as a symbol of the Washington swamp.
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has assured members that the hearings are not intended to rush into a new policy. The committee will hold its first hearing on Jan. 18 for members, and another on Jan. 19 to bring in outside groups, according to a source familiar with the plans.
“There’s really an interest in both parties to reclaim these powers back to Congress,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an appropriator who sits on the Rules Committee, said Monday. “There were clearly problems with the old system. Someone went to jail. There’s a case to be made against them, but I think in the end, the case for them is more powerful.”
Former Speaker John Boehner of Ohio led the effort to ban earmarks when Republicans took the House in 2010. The practice of designating money for pet projects back home had ballooned in the 1990s and early 2000s but problems spread. Disgraced Rep. Duke Cunningham of California was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison for taking $2.4 million worth of bribes for earmarks, for example.
Cole, one of the few House Republicans who has lived through the earmarks era, said lawmakers have already come up with changes that prevent waste or misuse of spending, so that lawmakers can no longer “airdrop” a special program into a spending bill. That includes requiring members’ names on each requested provision.
Earmarks were eliminated after a series of infamous projects — like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” — drew scorn from both parties. But since then, some members of both parties have quietly asked House leadership to restore them, arguing that Congress has lost some of its spending power to the executive branch.
Some House members, particularly those who write spending bills, argue that banning earmarks had the undesired effect of ceding some of Congress’ “power of the purse” to federal agencies.
They also argue that earmarks can be a powerful legislative tool to fight gridlock. For example, if members are allowed to make the case for special projects in their districts, those members are less likely to block spending bills.
Critics, including many fiscal conservatives, warn that an earmarks comeback could open the floodgates to more spending. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) dismissed the idea to reporters on Monday, predicting there would be “little appetite” for the debate.
Democrats are unlikely to back any push to bring back earmarks in an election year, even though some members privately would support it.
House Republicans last discussed ending the earmarks ban in fall 2016, though the new system would have maintained tight guidelines. That effort was abruptly cut off, however, as GOP leaders sought to avert what they feared could become a public relations nightmare for a party promising to “drain the swamp.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan then asked the Rules Committee to take over the debate by holding public forums, instead of a secret ballot behind closed doors.
Ryan told reporters Tuesday that he wants members “to have conversations” about the idea, as well as other budget process changes.
Part of the push for the hearings is that members are frustrated that projects are stalling at the local level. For instance, Ryan said the Army Corps of Engineers, which is handling more local projects since the end of earmarks, has “not been up to snuff about getting its job done.”
Proponents argue that earmarks have always comprised a small portion of federal spending, while allowing members to initiate new programs or projects in their own districts. Without them, lawmakers argue that federal agencies have taken over much of the decision-making in how federal dollars are spent locally.
Still, Cole said he’s worried about the public's reaction.
“The case for them is overwhelming, but the political case against them plays right into the sentiment right now,” he said.