U.S. Rep. John Lewis, front, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, center, and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson prepare for a Democratic Party of Georgia get-out-the-vote effort this weekend. Georgia Democrats hit the road Friday for a final, last-ditch effort to turn out voters as polls show the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump remains close in the state. They gathered for breakfast at the Georgia Democratic Party office in Atlanta, where party leaders laid out their battle plan before splitting up and hitting the road Friday morning. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Democrats call move to roll back ban on earmarks ‘cynical’

While many said they supported the idea, some did not hesitate to scold Republicans for being insincere barely a week after Donald Trump was elected on a pledge to root out Washington cronyism.

“To me, it’s just a cynical display of politics as usual,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia.

Earmarks are “an issue that needs to be discussed,” he said, “but for the Republicans to try to pass it under the cover of a lame-duck session shows just how cynical they were in using it as a campaign issue.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a former state auditor and one of the Democrats’ most prominent earmark foes, said the behind-the-scenes action “is exactly what Americans are mad about.”

The reaction came less than 24 hours after Speaker Paul Ryan pumped the brakes on a proposal that would have brought back earmarks after GOP lawmakers appeared on the verge of approving it during a closed-door meeting.

The Wisconsin Republican, who has supported the ban, promised to have a public vetting of the issue in the new year.

“We’re going to be spending the first quarter of 2017 figuring out just how we can make sure we can restore the power, the purse, to the legislative branch to hold the unelected branch of government accountable,” Ryan said Thursday.

Supporters of lifting the ban said that with the right transparency measures in place it would underscore the GOP’s pledge to move power back to Congress from an “overreaching” executive branch, without costing additional money.

“Part of draining the swamp up here is getting back to the constitutional role of government,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “Part of draining the swamp is making sure that bureaucrats and unelected officials are not running the show like they are under the Obama administration.”

An earmark is money in a federal funding bill that lawmakers have chosen to set aside for a specific project. Under the current ban, members of Congress can no longer dictate which individual endeavors the government should fund. They instead can only appropriate pots of money for more general purposes, leaving it to federal agencies to determine which projects should get the funding.

Fiscal conservatives are rallying against the effort to roll back the ban, framing it as a rebuke of the principles that delivered Trump to the White House.

The earmark ban went into effect in 2011, shortly after Republicans retook control of the House on the tea party wave. Then-Speaker John Boehner had campaigned on the issue, capitalizing off pent-up frustration following years of scandals involving such federal spending and epitomized by the infamous $400 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

These days, many lawmakers have complained that the ban has made the world of government spending more opaque and inefficient. Bridges and dams still need to get built and scientific research conducted at universities, many say, and who knows the needs of a district better than its member of Congress?

Many Democrats on Thursday indicated they were supportive of bringing the practice back.

“I don’t see why we give it all to the administration to make those decisions,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis said before the practice was barred in 2011, he was able to more easily secure federal funding for MARTA and highway improvement projects.

“I think different places suffered because we do not have the ability to have a line item to say ‘this must be used for the improvement of metro Atlanta transportation system,’ ” he said.

But Lewis said Congress also needs to discuss safeguards to prevent unfettered pork barrel spending.

“We need to guard against” special interests, Lewis said.

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