Congressional Republicans may be about to commit political suicide by bringing back earmarks, according to worried House conservatives.
The House narrowly avoided a vote to reinstate earmarks after November’s election, thanks to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, but Republican Reps. John Culberson of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and Tom Rooney of Florida are back leading the charge to reverse the ban House Republicans instituted in 2011 after gaining control of Congress.
“If the Republicans really want to give up control of Congress, just do this,” former Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, told a Republican Study Committee forum Tuesday. “To me, there is no question — the tone-deafness of this is amazing to me — that we would even consider going back.”
Coburn led a hard-nosed but often lonely charge to abolish earmarks beginning in 2005 and became known as the Senate’s “Dr. No.” He called earmarks “the gateway drug to Washington Spending Disease.”
Coburn retired from Congress after 2014. He previously served three terms in the House during the 1990s.
Earmarks are often-obscurely written provisions a senator or representative adds to an appropriation bill or bill report to direct funding to a specific project — usually in the sponsoring congressman’s state or district.
There are no separate votes on individual earmarks, even though they often benefit family members, friends, or campaign donors of sponsoring congressmen.
Some argue Congress is still wasting tax dollars, but just using the term “earmarks.” Nonprofit taxpayer advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) found members of Congress earmarked 10 times more money for pet projects in 2016 than they did before the 2011 ban.
Members of Congress slipped $5.1 billion in pet project spending into the 2016 budget, up from $541 million in fiscal year 2010, according to CAGW’s latest annual Congressional Pig Book.
Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, argues earmarks are the only way to regain control of the power of the purse, something he says Congress lost under former President Barack Obama.
“We want to be able to have some input on what these bureaucracies are doing in secret,” Culberson argued Tuesday, saying the earmark ban as-is prevents him from communicating with federal agencies about projects and priorities and allows the White House to fast track infrastructure projects depending on whether that district votes Republican or Democrat.
Conservative members of the House say reinstating earmarks is the wrong way to approach regaining congressional authority.
Coburn said agencies’ failures should compel Congress to conduct better oversight, not reinstate easy spending, and current members of Congress emphasized reintroducing earmarks will only fuel more waste and corruption.
“I believe bringing back the process of earmarking is the antithesis of what the American people spoke loud and clear on Election Day that they expected out of this Congress,” said Rep. Jim Banks, a freshman Republican from Indiana. “Lawmaking must never be a never-ending competition of pay-to-play, a zero-sum game with members wheeling and dealing for bigger slices of the federal pie financed by hardworking taxpayers.”
Earmarking allowed for projects like the following, according to CAGW:
- Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith earmarked $95,000 in fiscal year 2009 for improvements to three local intersections, including one a few blocks from his house.
- Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson in fiscal year 2010 earmarked $900,000 to repave two dozen roads, including roads that serviced three homes he owned and one home his daughter owned.
- House Minority Leader and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi for more than a decade earmarked $50 million for a light-rail project in San Francisco next to a commercial building her husband owned.
“The perception is bad, the reality is worse,” said former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. DeMint is now president of the Heritage Foundation.
Culberson told reporters reintroducing earmarks isn’t high on his priority list.
But conservative House members promised to fight any move to bring back pork barrel spending, and make the process as transparent as possible.
“If we do this in the Republican conference, I think this should be a recorded vote,” said Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis.