One of the first questions before the new Congress when it’s sworn in next week could surprise voters who hoped the election would “drain the swamp” in Washington: Should lawmakers lift the 6-year-old ban on earmarks?
Earmarking allowed lawmakers to add language to bills ordering a federal agency to spend a specific amount on a project back home.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives established a temporary prohibition on earmarks in 2010 after many voters came to see the practice as wasteful and corrupt. The Senate followed suit in 2011.
The hope among those who want to bring the practice back is that earmarks will help the new Congress, which takes office Tuesday, overcome gridlock by giving politicians extra incentive to work together and pass legislation.
“The most frustrated people I know about Congress are members of Congress,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “So maybe, just maybe, some of them are ready to experience a modest amount of popular critique for doing something that might make the place work better.”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri rejects the argument that members of Congress need earmarks in order to cooperate and do their jobs.
“What they’re really saying to voters is, ‘If we can’t get paid off with our pet projects, then we really can’t work on your behalf together,’ ” McCaskill said in an interview.
McCaskill, a former state auditor, was a driving force behind the push to impose a moratorium on earmarking six years ago. She also has proposed legislation that would make the Senate’s ban permanent.
Earmarks embodied everything voters dislike about business as usual in Washington, McCaskill said.
“It was sprinkling fairy dust in a back room,” she said. “There was no consideration of merit. No cost-benefit analysis. The public didn’t even know what projects members had been asked to fund nor how they made the decisions which ones they funded. . . . Now how bold is this message after this election? I mean talk about filling the swamp.”
The possibility of restoring earmarks came up at a private meeting of House Republicans the week before Thanksgiving. Lawmakers vented their frustration over gridlock in a lengthy debate, with proponents of earmarks arguing that without them, the legislative branch cedes too much of its power to the executive branch.
A proposal to revive earmarks appeared to have enough support to pass, according to a Republican source in the room. The vote would have been secret. But House Speaker Paul Ryan intervened. He urged his fellow Republicans not to make the decision too hastily.
Ryan cautioned his colleagues against restoring earmarks behind closed doors just days after a “drain the swamp” election.
If lawmakers withdrew their earmark proposal, he promised a more thorough process to review earmarking and vote on it by April.
That process could include forming a task force or debates on the House floor.
Democrats and Republicans fall on both sides of the battle.
Missouri’s Republican Sen. Roy Blunt voted against prohibiting earmarks in 2010. That year he sponsored or co-sponsored 22 earmarks totaling $22.6 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government accountability watchdog.
In an interview before his re-election, Blunt said he didn’t expect earmarks to come back.
“But I do think there needs to be a stronger linkage between authorizing the spending and appropriating the money to do whatever was authorized,” Blunt said.
Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, on the other hand, has been opposed to the idea of earmarks since his election to Congress in 2010, and his position hasn’t changed, said his spokesman, CJ Grover, in an email.
But McCaskill’s Democratic colleague from Missouri, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, said in an interview he would be more than happy to co-sponsor or speak in favor of any measure that would bring earmarks back.
“I won’t just support it. It will be a hallelujah support,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver says earmarks give lawmakers a personal stake in a bill’s fate. And they ensure that federal money reaches rural and inner-city communities that bureaucrats in Washington often overlook.
Cleaver sponsored or co-sponsored 16 earmarks for a total of more than $16 million in 2010, the last year Congress allowed the practice. Among those requests were $2.5 million for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department to build a new community center and half a million for an Emergency Operations Center in Jackson County, Missouri.
Cleaver believes there’s plenty of support on both sides of the aisle to revive earmarking.
The only question, he said, is whether lawmakers are willing to voice their support openly, rather than by secret ballot.
Cleaver said he’d recently spoken with a Republican colleague who told him she supports restoring the practice. “But she’s afraid to say so publicly,” the congressman said.
If lawmakers are going to bring back earmarks, they should tell their constituents which side they’re on, said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent budget watchdog.
“Speaker Ryan is right that doing this in some sort of smoke-filled room private vote isn’t the way to go about it,” Ellis said. “Let them stand up and be counted.”
Ellis said a return to earmarking “would be politically tone deaf” – especially after Donald Trump’s victory – and could come back to haunt lawmakers who support it.
“I guarantee you that if they do go back to earmarks they’re going to find some earmarks where it’s going to some campaign contributor and it’s going to start looking bad,” he said. “That’s just the nature of that process.”
Grumet, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, argues that criticism of earmarks is based largely on an old process that already had been changed before the practice was suspended. Lawmakers had to disclose their earmark requests, identify intended recipients, and name those who stood to benefit. Members of Congress also had to certify that they and their relatives had no financial interest in the earmarks.
“There’s no question that in 2005-6 the process got out of control,” Grumet said. “You had projects added to big pieces of legislation before there was public debate. It was a bad process and it resulted in some bad projects.”
Even then, he said, earmarks accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Congressional Republicans now have incentive to restore earmarks if doing so might ease gridlock, he added.
“Having control over all three branches of government certainly means that failure of Congress to function would fall more heavily on Republicans,” Grumet said.
For Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, the debate over earmarks is “a healthy discussion about ways to make the government work for the people again.”
Her Republican colleagues, she said in a statement, were looking for ways to take back control from Washington bureaucrats who’ve been unresponsive to the people.
“This discussion included increasing legislative authority over the power of the purse,” Hartzler said.
Harzler welcomes her constituents input on whether to revive earmarks.
“The voters sent us a message . . . and I look forward to exploring ideas on how to make government work for them; not against them,” she said.