Are Republicans Opening the Door to More Pork Barrel Spending?
Policy + Politics

Are Republicans Opening the Door to More Pork Barrel Spending?

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

An unexpected move to vote on a proposal to restore earmarks to the federal appropriations process has conservative groups on Capitol Hill scrambling to drum up resistance before the incoming members of the House of Representatives take a vote on the chamber’s rules for the next Congress.

After taking over the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans did away with earmarks, which direct spending to specific projects that a member of Congress wants to see implemented. Over the years, they had become synonymous with shady deals and waste as Congressmen used them to channel money to their own districts, often resulting in public buildings or facilities with their names on them.

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The proposal that will be voted on Wednesday would not fully restore earmarks, according to The Daily Signal, a website published by the conservative group Heritage Action for America, which obtained a copy. It would only allow members of Congress to direct funding through a limited set of federal agencies, including the Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security. State and local governments could also receive directed funds. However, it would bar the use of public funds for things like parks and recreation facilities.

The authors of the proposal are three Republican members of the House: John Culberson of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Tom Rooney of Florida.

“Any attempt to roll back the longstanding ban on congressional earmarks—the lubricant that empowers politicians to cut bad deals—would amount to a rebuke of those voters,” said Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action for America, to The Daily Signal. “Americans deserve an honest, transparent government that is working for everyone, not simply doling out favors to a well connected few.”

David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said, “Earmarks represent the worst of inside-the-beltway gamesmanship, by enticing Members to vote for big-government bills with the lure of getting tax dollars for big projects back in their districts. Voters believed that Republicans would ‘drain the swamp,’ not redirect it for their own benefit. Any effort to restore this kind of cronyism should be flatly rejected.”

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In a statement, Jenny Beth Martin, president of the group Tea Party Patriots, said, “Any member of Congress who votes to bring back old-school, backroom, pork-barrel spending through earmarks is putting himself or herself firmly against the American people who just elected Donald Trump president, as he campaigned emphatically on the issue of draining the swamp in Washington.”

The problem for Martin and the folks at Heritage and the Club for Growth is that figuring out who did and did not support the proposal will be difficult if not impossible. Lawmakers are voting by secret ballot on Wednesday.

The argument against earmarks is that they can be used to “bribe” lawmakers into taking bad votes, or that they carry a whiff of corruption.

However, they have their supporters as well. Many have attributed the remarkable dysfunction in Congress, and particularly the House, in recent years to the elimination of earmarks. They gave leaders in the House of Representatives an effective way to both punish and reward members of their own party.

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In the years since earmarks were eliminated, this argument goes, low-ranking members have felt free to buck leadership on a regular basis because there isn’t much of a price that an angry House Speaker can extract.

Others argue that earmarks have a place in the appropriations process because members of Congress know their individual districts far better than bureaucrats in Washington, and therefore have more insight into where federal dollars might do the most good.