Democrats stir up talk of re­turn to ear­marks

Seek ac­cord from Se­nate Re­pub­li­cans

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

House Democrats are ea­gerly eye­ing the chance to re­vive ear­marks when they take the ma­jor­ity next year, say­ing it is Congress’ duty to siphon the money to pet projects — and hop­ing a re­turn to pork-bar­rel spend­ing will help keep back­benchers in line.

But they are wary of tak­ing the leap alone and say they hope Se­nate Re­pub­li­cans will join them in rev­ers­ing an eightyear ban.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Mary­land, who is poised to be­come House ma­jor­ity leader when the next Congress con­venes in Jan­uary, told re­porters that he ex­pects bi­par­ti­san sup­port for a re­turn to ear­marks.

“To say that a mem­ber of Congress is un­able to help his or her own dis­trict, I think, is in­cor­rect,” Mr. Hoyer said. “We are co-equal branches — that is our au­thor­ity un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion. We don’t have to go hat in hand to the pres­i­dent and say, ‘Please, will you spend money on this, that or the other?’”

Ear­marks are line items tucked into bills carv­ing out a por­tion of spend­ing for roads, bridges, park­ing garages and mil­i­tary weapons sys­tems at the in­sis­tence of a par­tic­u­lar law­maker or two.

At its height last decade, ear­marks ac­counted for about 3 per­cent of dis­cre­tionary fed­eral spend­ing.

But they drew out­sized at­ten­tion. Crit­ics called it pork-bar­rel spend­ing and pointed to projects such as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which would have sent hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to Alaska for a bridge to an is­land with a pop­u­la­tion of 50.

Out-of-con­trol ear­mark­ing also landed at least one mem­ber of Congress in prison last decade.

Stung by those con­tro­ver­sies, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, Ken­tucky Re­pub­li­can, said af­ter the elec­tion last month that a re­turn to ear­mark­ing isn’t in the cards.

“We have a con­fer­ence rule re­lated to ear­marks on the Se­nate side. I can­not imag­ine that will change,” he told re­porters at the time.

But ear­mark op­po­nents say they are wor­ried they won’t be able to hold the line.

When Sen. Jeff Flake, an Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can who is re­tir­ing, tried to or­ga­nize a let­ter of col­leagues in fa­vor of a per­ma­nent ear­mark ban, he was able to line up only 10 sig­na­tures out of 100 sen­a­tors.

Of the 10, nine were Re­pub­li­cans. The sole Demo­crat was Sen. Claire McCaskill of Mis­souri, who lost her re-elec­tion race and like Mr. Flake won’t be re­turn­ing to the Capi­tol next year.

At the be­gin­ning of the year, Pres­i­dent Trump, urged Congress to think about restor­ing ear­marks.

“One thing it did is it brought ev­ery­body to­gether,” he told law­mak­ers at a White House meet­ing.

Democrats say that if they do re­vive ear­marks, it will be within lim­its.

Mr. Hoyer said the spend­ing projects would have to be re­ported on­line for the pub­lic to view, that law­mak­ers and their fam­i­lies wouldn’t be able to ben­e­fit fi­nan­cially, and that the spend­ing would be re­stricted to the pub­lic sec­tor and non­profit groups.

“We want to make sure that these are done open and above­board,” he said.

The is­sue is so po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive that some law­mak­ers are loath to even say the word “ear­mark.” In­stead, they call the prac­tice “con­gres­sion­ally di­rected spend­ing.”

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Demo­crat and the in­com­ing chair­woman of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, made a re­turn to ear­mark­ing one of her key pledges to col­leagues when she asked for their sup­port to lead the panel in the next Congress.

“I will work tire­lessly to en­sure spend­ing bills help ad­dress lo­cal is­sues in mem­bers’ dis­tricts,” she wrote to col­leagues last month im­me­di­ately af­ter the midterm elec­tions. “The cau­cus should also re­view pro­ce­dures and work with the Se­nate to de­ter­mine the most ef­fec­tive way to carry out our con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties through con­gres­sion­ally di­rected spend­ing.”

Rep. Mike Quigley of Illi­nois, the top Demo­crat on a fi­nan­cial ser­vices spend­ing sub­com­mit­tee, said law­mak­ers can re­store ear­marks with­out hav­ing an­other “Bridge to Nowhere” sit­u­a­tion.

He said hav­ing law­mak­ers with buy-in on bills with which they are able to con­trol some of the projects can help Congress run more smoothly.

“It gets to a broader sense of coali­tion­build­ing, and some­times that’s how these things get done,” said Mr. Quigley, point­ing to his sup­port for a Re­pub­li­can law­maker’s tun­nel project that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion op­posed.

“I told him I should care just as much about his tun­nel as he should about my Blue Line, the tran­sit line be­tween O’Hare [air­port in Chicago] and down­town get­ting done, as I should care about re­build­ing the locks on the Mis­sis­sippi be­cause 42 per­cent of all Illi­nois crops go down the Mis­sis­sippi,” Mr. Quigley said.

Rep. David E. Price of North Carolina, the top Demo­crat on a trans­porta­tion spend­ing sub­com­mit­tee, said both par­ties sup­port restor­ing ear­marks, but he added that the is­sue is so po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive that law­mak­ers may opt for more in­cre­men­tal changes.

“If you had a se­cret bal­lot, we’d do it to­mor­row — you know that — in both par­ties,” said Mr. Price. “It is a de­nial of our con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion. It [has] also gone so far in the way it’s in­ter­preted that it ties our hands com­pletely.”

Mr. Hoyer said he ex­pects bi­par­ti­san, bi­cam­eral sup­port for mov­ing for­ward.

“I can’t pre­dict [be­cause] I don’t know the votes in the Se­nate on this, but I will tell you there is sig­nif­i­cant Se­nate in­volve­ment,” he said.

Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Re­pub­li­can, was non­com­mit­tal when asked about the sub­ject last Tues­day — though he did play­fully la­bel “ear­mark” a pe­jo­ra­tive term.

“I think the House Democrats had more [of] a dia­logue among them­selves on that,” Mr. Shelby said.

Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Re­pub­li­can, said he hadn’t heard a groundswel­l within the Se­nate Re­pub­li­can con­fer­ence about re­viv­ing ear­marks, and he thinks it would be a bad move.

“I’ve learned up here that some­times you got to keep a closed mouth and open ears, and I’m will­ing to lis­ten, but the bur­den of proof is on them be­cause I’ve never seen ear­marks work,” said Mr. Kennedy, a mem­ber of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee.

He said he wasn’t sur­prised, though, that House Democrats wanted to re­store the prac­tice.

“That’s be­cause they like to spend money like it was ditch­wa­ter,” he said. “This is all bor­rowed money we’re spend­ing.”


Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Mary­land, who is poised to be­come House ma­jor­ity leader, said he ex­pects bi­par­ti­san sup­port for a re­turn to ear­marks.

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