The House Republican conference voted 102 to 84 Wednesday to end a ban on earmarks, which allow lawmakers to designate funds for specific projects within their districts.
Banned from Congress during the rise of the tea party in 2011, earmarks have long been associated with questionable spending deals like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, as well as scandals involving corrupt lobbyists. But Democrats, arguing that earmarks would help restore the power of the purse to the legislative branch, plan to bring them back this year, albeit with a new name (“congressionally directed spending”) and a variety of new rules intended to limit the potential for corruption.
House Republicans debated the issue behind closed doors, with some speaking in favor of maintaining the ban. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, which is ideologically aligned with the tea party conservative movement, were reportedly strongly opposed to ending it, decrying the practice as “legislative bribery.”
“I think we've got $30 trillion in debt and people are tired of the swamp and the GOP should be ashamed of itself, if it jumps headfirst right back into the swamp,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), a member of the caucus, said.
But others said that refusing to use earmarks would allow the Biden administration to exert greater influence on spending while putting Republicans at a disadvantage during the budgeting process.
“The Democrats want to bring [earmarks] back,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said. “There's a real concern about the administration directing where money goes. This doesn't add one more dollar. I think members here know what's most important about what's going on in their district, not Biden.”
The GOP House vote leaves Senate Republicans as the only group that is sticking with the ban, at least for the time being. Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he is willing to dedicate half of the funds allocated for earmarks to Republicans, but it’s not clear they’re interested in taking him up on the offer. Republican senators voted on a permanent ban on earmarks in 2019, and some have indicated they want to maintain it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke out against the revival of earmarks last month. “I represent the entire conference and I can tell you the overwhelming majority of the Republican Conference in the Senate is not in favor of going back to earmarks,” he told Fox News. “I’m assuming those people — even if Democrats craft the bill so that those are permitted — will not be asking for them.”