House Republicans Reviving Debate Over Earmarks

Jan 11, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 7:26 pm
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On Capitol Hill, House Republicans are reviving the debate over earmarks. The practice once let lawmakers steer government money to their pet projects. Under former Speaker John Boehner, the House banned earmarks in 2011. Now some Republicans including President Trump say that was a mistake. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has more.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: When President Trump told lawmakers on live national television this week that Congress should consider reinstating earmarks, lawmakers like Florida Republican Tom Rooney cheered.

TOM ROONEY: He was exactly right. I couldn't believe he said it. I was - like, jumped out of my chair. I'm just like, thank God somebody is speaking truth.

DAVIS: Rooney is an outspoken advocate for bringing earmarks back with limits. Lawmakers like him say earmarks could be the key to much-needed legislative compromise. He says there's a way to bring them back without reviving the corrupt practices that led to the ban seven years ago.

ROONEY: They like to roll out, like, these pork barrel, illegal things that people went to jail for. I'm talking about vetted in the light of day, through the committee process projects in members' districts that they can go home to and say, I got this done for my constituents.

DAVIS: Lawmakers will get a chance to make their case next week when the House Rules Committee plans to hold two days of public televised hearings on the earmark ban. The hearings are part of a deal cut by House Speaker Paul Ryan at the beginning of this Congress. House Republicans were on the verge of voting in a secret ballot behind closed doors to reinstate earmarks. Ryan intervened and said it would send the wrong message following the recent election of a president who had promised to drain the swamp. The speaker was noncommittal when asked this week if he thinks earmarks will make a comeback.

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PAUL RYAN: Conversations are having a comeback. No, I think what you're talking about is the Rules Committee hearings. We've encouraged our members all along to talk about budget process reforms. Many of us have opinions on this issue. But I want our members to have conversations.

DAVIS: Steve Ellis will testify at the hearing next week. Ellis works for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group that was a leading critic of past earmark practices. Ellis says Republicans don't have a great track record with restraint when it comes to earmarks.

STEVE ELLIS: They kind of created the whole environment. You know, we went from - in 1996, according to the Congressional Research Service, there were about 3,000 earmarks in all of the spending bills. In 2005, there were more than 15,000.

DAVIS: That decade-long era of the Republican majority also led to a wave of corruption scandals involving earmarks, including prison sentences for people like former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former California Republican Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham.

Democrats were not immune to these earmark abuses. When they held the majority from 2007 to 2010, Democrats instituted disclosure requirements for earmark requests, but they didn't ban them. But many lawmakers pledged to never request an earmark. Tennessee Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper was one of them. This is how he remembers those days.

JIM COOPER: The old practice was so abusive. I remember looking through an old intelligence bill, which is secret and classified, nobody could see. And there, a very powerful senior member of Congress had gotten one quarter of all the earmarks in the bill, and he wasn't even on the committee. You know, it's incredible what theft will take place if nobody's looking.

DAVIS: Earmark advocates say that when earmarks were in fashion, Washington was more bipartisan, and more deals got done. Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill rejects that argument.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: That's just not true. I mean, and frankly, if that's it - if in order for us to function and find common ground and compromise and get things done we've got to get bought off with a special project in our state, then we're in worse shape than I thought we were.

DAVIS: What earmark advocates and opponents alike do agree on is this. In private, most lawmakers in Congress would like to see earmarks reinstated in some form. The question is if they're willing to do it in public. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.