U.S. House Republicans were on the verge of voting to roll back Capitol Hill’s 5-year-old ban on special earmark spending projects Wednesday, but Speaker Paul Ryan hit the pause button.
The turn of events came eight days after Donald Trump rode an anti-establishment wave to the White House on a promise to rid Washington of cronyism and largess. It also comes when the GOP, which fashions itself as the party of fiscal conservatism, controls both the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade.
Some conservatives were incredulous the idea was even raised, especially so shortly after the election.
“Did they learn nothing at all from these elections?” asked Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin of Cherokee County. “People are tired of business as usual in D.C. After this historic election, are they really going to go back to business as usual in their first votes?”
Supporters framed the proposal as an extension of the GOP’s pledge to kill “executive overreach” and return power to the legislative branch.
“We are elected, we’re accountable, we’re expected to return the taxpayer dollars that our constituents pay to the federal government to our districts,” said Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who sponsored one of the earmark proposals. “Letting the executive branch and unaccountable bureaucrats dictate how that money is spent, I think, is exactly opposite what this election was about.”
An earmark is money in a government spending bill set aside for a specific project. Most were relatively small requests for highways, dikes or bridges in lawmakers’ districts, but the practice became associated with abuse after a series of scandals in the early 2000s.
The issue made front-page news when former U.S. Rep. Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty in 2005 to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for writing earmarks into legislation.
The term became a pejorative after a $400 million “bridge to nowhere” earmarked for Alaska became synonymous with wasteful congressional spending.
The new proposals to reinstate earmarks came as the House GOP considered its rules for the new year in a closed-door meeting Wednesday.
Several proposals were on the table to alter the earmark ban to varying degrees. One, for example, would have only allowed for Congress to fund specific projects at the Army Corps of Engineers, which allocates money to projects to improve infrastructure, waterways and bridges. Another, far broader, would have barred lawmakers only from funding recreational facilities or parks.
A person who attended the Republican meeting but was unauthorized to speak publicly told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was clear after a long debate that one of the earmark proposals was on the verge of passing. That was when Ryan, R-Wis., stepped in.
Ryan, an opponent of earmarks, pledged instead to have a public vetting of the issue during the early months of 2017.
The action sets up a contentious and likely messy fight within the party at a time when leaders are looking to project unity with Trump.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence was instrumental in crafting the earmark ban when he was in Congress, a position Ryan lauded during the Republican National Convention.
“He has served honorably, with great dignity. You know what? The results, the results are impressive,” Ryan said of Pence. “This is a man who led the charge to ban earmarks in Congress, and he won that fight.”
Trump’s exact position on earmarks is unclear, but should he come out against them, Republicans would likely be hesitant to cross him.
Fiscally conservative groups, such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, railed against such spending, as did some Georgians in Congress.
“We’re here to clean up Washington,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Monroe. “Earmarks are not the way forward. There are a lot of other ways for us to take our constitutional authority back, and we need to look at those things.”
On the other side of the argument, Rooney said his proposal would not increase spending but give Congress more power over the money it already approves for federal agencies.
Some Georgia lawmakers appeared receptive to the idea, including U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger.
“I never use the term ‘earmarks’ because this is not a debate about earmarks. This is a debate about the constitutional role of the various branches,” Graves said. “It is negligence on our part if we just cede all spending to the executive branch.”
Graves is a rising rising star on the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that holds the federal purse strings, and would stand to regain lost power should earmarking be reinstated.
The ban on earmarks has had a profound impact on the way Washington — and the backers of state and local projects that require federal funding — do business.
Lawmakers are currently barred from dictating which individual projects the government should fund — they can only set higher-level priorities. That means backers of single projects seeking federal assistance often need to appeal directly to federal agencies, which are often more opaque in their decision-making.
Lifting the earmark ban would be a boon for backers of projects such as the Savannah port expansion.
The state of Georgia and its Ports Authority are banking on the federal government to pony up $440 million over the next few years for an expansion project. But they have butted heads with the Obama administration in recent years over funding levels.
“What happens is members of Congress have to go hat in hand over to the Pentagon and beg some unelected person who is often in a different party and makes political decisions to fund” such a project, said former Savannah U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who was a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee before he retired.
Putting power back in Congress’ hands on such funding decisions in a more transparent way would aid projects such as the port, Kingston said.
But Kingston, a Trump surrogate, said he does not see a political appetite to return to the days of earmarks in the near future.
“It’s a political vote more than a substantive vote,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s easy to attack and harder to explain.”
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