House GOP allows spending earmarks, in boost for Biden plan

Erik Wasson

House Republicans voted to allow their members to request dedicated-spending projects, known as earmarks, following that same move by Democrats, in a positive sign for President Joe Biden’s hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The House GOP caucus on Wednesday voted by secret ballot to approve earmarks, according to people familiar with the matter.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., criticizes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

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Senate Republicans still have to decide on whether to participate in earmarking, which both parties banned in 2011 after years of their association with wasteful projects and with corruption. Advocates say new transparency rules will help address those issues, and encourage the kind of deal-making essential to bipartisan agreements.

“There’s a real concern about the administration directing where money goes; this doesn’t add one more dollar,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, while not specifying how he voted. “Members here know what’s most important about what’s going on in their district, not Biden.”

Maintaining the ban would have limited the ability of GOP lawmakers winning inclusion of projects important to their constituencies in the infrastructure bill Congress is now poised to debate. Republicans have divided over the issue, however, with some saying earmarks contribute to excess federal spending, at a time that government debt is soaring.

Unnecessary Spending

Senator Mitt Romney, a moderate Utah Republican, said earlier this week that earmarks “have been associated with excess and would represent a turn to the worst.” He argued that “it’s just unnecessary spending and projects that are not necessarily in the national interest but are more akin to the seniority of a particular individual to ask for a particular benefit.”

The House GOP move will allow Republican lawmakers to request project-level funding in their districts for appropriations bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, as well as in transportation and water infrastructure bills. It also allows limited tax benefits and tariff exemptions. House Democrats, who hold a majority in the chamber, have already announced they will set up a process to request such a earmarks for the coming year.

Derided by opponents as pork-barrel politics, earmarks were especially tarnished by a bribery scandal and an Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” in the early 2000s. Republicans led the way in banning them in 2011 after they took over the House.

The rule adopted Thursday requires that members disclose their dedicated requests – including an explanation for why they’d be an “appropriate” use of taxpayer funds – and that they and their “immediate” family members have no financial interest in the project. Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama put the proposal to the caucus.

Bipartisan Sharing

Democrats had predicted that Republicans would go along with the return of earmarks once they saw the billions of dollars set to flow to Democratic districts.

“I’m perfectly willing to divide it equally between Republicans and Democrats, and so it will be up to them if they want it. If they don’t, we’ll just have it on the Democratic side,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. “But I think enough of them would like to have it on both sides.”

Infrastructure is set to be a key component of Biden’s next, longer-term economic program, in the wake of the $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief bill he signed last week. Whether it will be wrapped together with other priorities, including addressing climate change and expanding help for lower-income Americans, isn’t clear.

The White House is aiming to use tax-increases to help pay for a portion of its longer-term plans – something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Republicans would not support. But a GOP endorsement of earmarks could boost the chance of infrastructure getting split from the rest of Biden’s agenda, with tax hikes and other spending wrapped together in a Democrat-only package.