Earmarks, the simultaneously hated and beloved DC tool that lets lawmakers direct money to specific programs and projects, may be coming back.
House Republicans are re-opening their debate on earmarks, six years after they banned the practice that became the target of ire among conservatives and tea party groups.
Step one: Call them something else.
“For anyone to use the term earmarks, that would be at least a six-year-old term. The term that is used is congressionally-directed spending,” House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said Tuesday.
Sessions, R-Texas, said Tuesday that Republicans are weighing an option that would let them control spending related to Army Corps of Engineers projects. Sessions said that he and House Speaker Paul Ryan discussed earmarks with Republicans Tuesday morning at their weekly meeting and will take up the issue again Thursday.
Critics of the ban say that removing the ability to wheel and deal on items specific to individual lawmakers – from parks to major projects – has fed into the gridlock that has beset the Capitol in the last six years. It also gives more power to the executive branch to control where money is spent.
“I think the Republican leadership will find that it’s a good form of disciplining, in terms of what people want,” said Rep. John Larson, a veteran Democrat from Connecticut. “I also think in terms of members, especially, to be able to go in your local museum or your local municipality or your local hospital comes to you with a concern where they otherwise can’t come up with themselves, this is a good outlet.”
But earmarks are still a raw topic among Republicans, just months after Ryan stalled an earlier effort to revive earmarks amid concerns about how that would be received by the public.
“The speaker is following through on his commitment to examine this issue in a transparent and open process, and has asked the Rules Committee to hold public hearings in the coming weeks,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said Tuesday.
Just days after the 2016 election, Ryan stepped in and stalled an effort among rank-and-file Republicans to revive earmarks. “We just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election,” Ryan told Republicans at the time. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.”
Ryan did promise to let Republicans weigh in on the issue again – effectively putting the debate on ice until now. Sessions said Tuesday he plans to begin debating options for a limited earmark revival – and that a plan could be presented to Republicans for consideration before they leave town for the Fourth of July holiday.
The politics, however, will be difficult to navigate.
“I don’t see it having the groundswell of support to bring it back. Like the ethics thing, the timing – no matter what the merits may be – the timing of it is not appropriate,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, adding a reference to the ill-fated effort to scrap the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“There’s still a lot of support out there on the power of the purse issue, it’s how you do it – do you airdrop it in, do you work with our Democrat colleagues?” Meadows said.
Larson said he and many other Democrats are ready to help Republicans revive earmarks, but he said they’ve been stood up numerous times by Republicans unable to win support in their own ranks.
“They have to put it up first. They supposedly were going to put it up in their conference and then they withdrew it,” Larson said. “And so every time it looks like they’re ready to go to the prom but then all of the sudden we get stood up at the doorstep and we don’t even get a corsage.”