Democrats Embrace Earmarks Again as Bridge to Skeptical Republicans

WASHINGTON—Earmarks are making a comeback on Capitol Hill, pushed by Democrats trying to entice Republicans to support a major infrastructure package and other spending bills. But GOP lawmakers are torn over whether to take advantage of them.

Earmarking, which fell out of favor a decade ago, allows lawmakers to direct federal agencies to spend specific amounts on projects in their home states or districts. Earmarks date to the Lighthouse Act of 1789, which contained one for a pier in Philadelphia.

The practice gave members of Congress some control over how federal taxpayer dollars were spent locally—although even in their heyday, in the mid-2000s, earmarks accounted for less than 1% of the federal budget. Earmarks provided lawmakers tangible results, in the form of new highways, museums or research projects to promote on the campaign trail.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), left, has told Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) that earmark funds would be divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.


Bill Clark/Zuma Press

Still, reports of waste, abuse and favoritism made earmarks politically radioactive. An infamous example was a $223 million earmark in 2005 to link a small city in Alaska to an airport on a nearby island, population 50. The “bridge to nowhere” became an enduring symbol of pork-barrel spending.

Backlash came from both sides of the aisle, and Capitol Hill has had a moratorium on earmarks since 2011.


Barack Obama

pledged to veto any bills containing them, and GOP conferences in the House and Senate still have rules banning them.

Now, with Democrats clinging to majorities in an evenly divided Senate and narrowly divided House, earmarks could act as crucial sweeteners to pass an infrastructure package, one of President Biden’s top priorities, or other legislation.

Democrats say that the new earmark system—their preferred terms are “congressionally directed spending” or “community project funding”—will be limited in scope, transparent and accountable. And they are offering Republicans an equal share of the pot.

“I’m not sure that Dems want to do it, just if it’s us, if the Rs say they’re not going to do it,” said Sen.

Tim Kaine

(D., Va.). “I don’t think you’ll see earmarks coming back in the Senate unless there’s a bipartisan agreement to do something with appropriate safeguards.”

Talks are ongoing, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman

Patrick Leahy

of Vermont has promised his Republican counterpart,

Sen. Richard Shelby

of Alabama, that the panel, which doles out federal funds, would evenly divide earmark money between both parties.

Mr. Shelby said he is amenable, if safeguards are put in place.

“Of course I think it’s Congress’s role, you know, directed appropriations. But they abuse it, some people abuse it,” Mr. Shelby said. “We’ll see what happens…I would always support meritorious appropriations, absolutely.”

House Democrats announced the return of earmarking late last month. In a memo, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman

Rosa DeLauro

(D., Conn.) recast earmarks as community project funding, and introduced rules banning for-profit grantees and limiting earmarks to 1% of discretionary funding.

Under the plan, lawmakers are restricted to 10 projects each and must certify that they and their families have no financial interests in those projects. They must post all requests online, along with justifications.

House Transportation Committee Chairman

Peter DeFazio

(D., Ore.) said this month that lawmakers will be able to submit requests for highway and transit projects in a coming surface-transportation bill.

Senate Minority Leader

Mitch McConnell

(R., Ky.) has sent mixed messages on the topic. Asked at a press conference Feb. 23 whether he would support a return to earmarks if they were transparent and limited, Mr. McConnell deferred to Mr. Shelby, an earmark proponent. On Fox News Channel a few days later, Mr. McConnell called earmarks “very unpopular” among Republicans and predicted that few would use them if they were offered.

In the House, Minority

Whip Steve Scalise

(R., La.) said his caucus met this week to discuss earmarking, and conversations continue. “Our members have a lot of different views on this,” he said.

Republicans who favor earmarks, like Mr. Shelby, make the argument that Congress shouldn’t cede its constitutional power of the purse to bureaucrats in the Biden administration.

Some also contend that earmarks ease congressional gridlock by giving lawmakers buy-in on bills. “It helps them be invested in the legislative process,” said

Sen. Roy Blunt

(R., Mo.).


Do you think earmarks will play a significant role in a possible infrastructure deal? Join the conversation below.

But others are skeptical or outright opposed.

“Let me put it this way: The door’s open, but it’s pretty heavy,” said

Sen. John Kennedy

(R., La.). “There was so much abuse with earmarks. And I know, I hear this rhetoric of, ‘Well, this time we’re going to do it right.’ When donkeys fly!”

Mr. Kennedy said Democrats’ determination to bring back earmarks will force Republicans to make some very difficult decisions: Should they abstain on principle, or should they participate so their states don’t miss out?

“I’m not going to see my state punished, you know?” Mr. Kennedy said. “That’s the quandary that this presents.”

Even some Democrats are wary. “I want to see the details of what’s on the table,” said Sen.

Elizabeth Warren

(D., Mass.).

The White House hasn’t taken a position on the matter.

Earmarks have a proven record of getting lawmakers to vote for bills, but generally speaking they are bad policy because they aren’t selected by the state agencies that generally have to build the projects, said

Jeff Davis,

senior fellow at the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.

Since many projects aren’t necessarily ready to go or fully funded, earmark money tends to sit unused, Mr. Davis said. “It’s an inefficient way to do business, and it ties up money for years that would otherwise go to projects that could be built more quickly,” he added.

‘I’m not going to see my state punished, you know? That’s the quandary that this presents.’

— Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.)

Conservatives who reject earmarks under any circumstances are ramping up their rhetoric. “Earmarks are the currency of corruption,” tweeted the House Freedom Caucus.

Ten Senate Republicans introduced legislation to ban earmarks permanently, and GOP lawmakers from both chambers sent a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees. “‘We cannot imagine a worse way to build back trust in Congress than to resurrect a system that has been roundly rejected as corruptive and wasteful for decades,” the letter said.

Sen. Rick Scott

of Florida, chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, expects GOP candidates to use the issue of earmarking against Democrats running for re-election in 2022. “I will do everything I can to make sure it’s an issue in the campaign,” Mr. Scott said.


Sen. Mike Rounds

(R., S.D.) already has at least one possible earmark in mind: a multistate rural water system that has languished for lack of funds. He said earmarks could attract more support for an infrastructure package or other legislation, but he predicted that most Senate Republicans would balk at lifting their party’s ban.

“It’s too easy to just simply say, ‘I don’t believe in earmarks,’” he said.

Write to Lindsay Wise at

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Source: WSJ – US News

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