U.S. Capitol. Photo by Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle.
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans voted Wednesday to keep earmarks in place when they take over the chamber in January, a move that solidifies GOP support for the controversial spending practice that was brought back under new guardrails and transparency mechanisms less than two years ago.
Earmarking has become especially important to members of both political parties in the short time it’s been back, with both Republicans and Democrats cheering their ability to direct lucrative federal spending to their home states and localities.
Congress directed $9.1 billion in earmarked dollars to more than 5,000 community projects via earmarks during fiscal year 2022, according to an analysis from the Government Accountability Office.
State, local, tribal, or territorial governments account for about half of recipients, totaling more than $4.1 billion, according to GAO.
The process will, however, undergo some changes under Republican leadership, according to incoming House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger, who said in a brief interview following the closed-door vote that she plans to “tweak” the way the House earmarks.
“The first thing is to make sure that everybody understands where we are right now. So [to] people that are new, say ‘This is what we do and let me tell you about it,’ and you tell me what’s important to you,” Granger said.
The Texas Republican said she doesn’t think the way Democrats brought back earmarks during the last two years has gone well, though she declined to give specifics.
Granger also declined to say how she plans to tweak the process going forward, saying Republicans on Wednesday were focused on the “big picture.”
She did say that earmarks can be “very important” for lawmakers, since they allow members to direct funding back to their congressional districts.
“You can do something for the community that elected you and there are rules that you go by,” Granger said. “To be elected and say, ‘This is what my community needs and how I can do it’ — it’s just very important.”
Banned in 2011, back in 2021
The House GOP originally led the charge to ban earmarks in 2011 after years of scandals within the old earmarking process, adding a prohibition to their party rules in the House.
Democrats in the U.S. Senate followed suit the same year, keeping the practice of formally requesting federal spending for a congressional district or senator’s home state barred until early 2021, when Democrats in the House and Senate brought back the practice.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, officially brought back the practice in February of that year, saying that the rebranded community project funding, or congressionally directed spending, “will allow Members to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.”
House Republicans voted in March to lift their earmark ban, allowing their members to participate in the process.
Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, reinstated a formal process for earmarking in that chamber in April 2021.
He argued that the Constitution gives Congress and its members the power to determine federal spending, not unelected members of the executive branch. He also said lawmakers know their home states better and can direct resources more efficiently to needed projects.
“Every member of this chamber has their hands tied. Why? Because we ceded the power of the purse to unelected bureaucrats here in Washington when we instituted a ban on congressionally directed spending,” Leahy said in a floor speech at the time.
“As a result, even though we appropriate the money, we can’t even direct a tiny fraction of the tax dollars we collect from our hard-working constituents and send those tax dollars back into their communities,” Leahy continued. “We turn it over to the executive branch and have no say in it.”
While the U.S. House and U.S. Senate set different rules for their spending process, the two chambers currently have similar restrictions on when and how members can request and receive earmarked funds.
Both chambers prohibit earmarks from going to for-profit entities, limit which of the dozen annual appropriations bills are eligible for earmark requests, require members to publicly post their requests on their official website and call on the Government Accountability Office to audit a sample of the approved earmarks annually.
The House requires members to certify neither they nor their spouse have any financial interest in the project, while senators must certify that neither they nor their immediate family have a financial interest in the project.
The total amount of federal dollars flowing to member-requested projects cannot exceed 1% of discretionary spending, which totals about $1.5 trillion for the current fiscal year.
In the House, members cannot request more than 10 projects, though there’s no similar cap in the Senate.
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