The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Earmark spending went away after corruption scandals. Now, it’s back on the table.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), left, on Capitol Hill in 2018, says earmarks would give lawmakers a chance to use their expertise to deliver tangible results for their constituents. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

They’re baaaack.

A decade after earmarks were ended following corruption scandals that landed several lawmakers in prison, the federal funding for local projects is back on the table.

The House Appropriations Committee will begin receiving up to 10 requests from each lawmaker who wants to try to secure these narrowly cast funding projects. Once formally known as “congressionally directed spending,” they are now called “community project funding,” the new name emphasizing that this iteration of earmarks is designed mostly for local government projects and not lobbyist-backed private contractors.

In her memo explaining the new policy, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said that earmarks would give lawmakers a chance to use their expertise to deliver tangible results for their constituents.

“Members of Congress bring deep, firsthand understanding of the needs of their communities and know what projects will have the greatest impact,” she wrote. “ ‘Community Project Funding’ allows us to put that understanding and knowledge to work to help the American people.”

Traditional conservatives remain opposed to bringing back the practice, leaving Republicans divided on whether to join the effort.

“I think earmarks are not the right way to go. They have been associated with excess, and it would represent a turn to the worst,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters, recalling the corruption scandals of 15 years ago in which several senior lawmakers ended up in prison along with dozens of lobbyists. “It’s just not necessary spending and projects that are not necessarily in the national interest and are more akin to the seniority of a particular individual to ask for a particular benefit.”

Biden’s party-line approach in Congress has worked so far. But Sen. Joe Manchin wants bipartisanship.

That’s the push and pull of earmarks.

The revolving door to K Street created a system that had lobbying firms recruit staffers from key lawmakers to serve as the earmark gatekeeper, with potential clients knowing the aide-turned-lobbyist had the congressman’s ear.

From late 2005 through 2008, four lawmakers were charged with federal corruption crimes connected to narrowly drawn provisions that were essentially earmarks, most famously Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who drew up a “bribe menu” by hand outlining how many millions of dollars in federal contracts he would deliver in exchange for gifts. Cunningham pleaded guilty, served a prison term and was pardoned by President Donald Trump in January.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first took power in 2007, she implemented more earmark transparency. That confirmed tight connections between K Street and earmarks, cemented through campaign donations to lawmakers.

Republicans, after ramping up the practice in the late 1990s by focusing on senior lawmakers and those facing tough elections, turned against them. They did away with earmarks after winning control of the House in 2010.

After winning back the majority in 2018, House Democrats made some attempts at restoring earmarks, but their members from swing districts, worried about the political appearances, put those talks on hold.

Now DeLauro and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, have convinced Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the side effects of trying to root out pay-to-play corruption were worse than the cure.

DeLauro, who took over the Appropriations Committee in January, has spent months building up goodwill within her caucus and among Republicans on the panel.

She embraced the recommendations of a newly formed bipartisan committee, created to make Congress function better, when it unanimously agreed to call for restoring earmarks with a few safeguards.

DeLauro will not allow earmarks to go to for-profit companies and instead wants lawmakers to make requests for their local governments and schools. The House has asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct regular audits on some earmarks to determine their efficacy.

The last earmarks came in late 2009 when Congress approved federal agency funding — which means more than 300 members of the House have never submitted an earmark request. Committee aides are letting lawmakers know ahead of time that they will be cautious in approving requests, as they want to ensure offices know how to talk to their local officials and make proper pitches.

DeLauro has limited the overall pot of earmark money to 1 percent of the total federal agency budgets that her committee controls — which would have been $14 billion out of the more than $1.4 trillion in the 2021 fiscal year.

Republicans opposed to earmarks worry that their return will be used as a way to win support for legislation that otherwise might lack the support to pass, providing new projects for those lawmakers on the fence. Earmarks, in this line of thinking, are a legislative gateway drug to more federal spending.

“It also ends up being used as a currency to buy votes. And we’ve seen how that’s gotten abused as well, so I sure hope we don’t get down this road,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said.

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Earmarks go beyond just the annual funding bills and also can be included in infrastructure legislation — the long-term legislation for highways and bridges used to include earmarked allotments for every single member of Congress.

The old ethos, however, mandated that lawmakers had to vote for the overall legislation to secure their projects’ smooth sailing. Former congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who oversaw the subcommittee funding health and education, was famous for vanishing projects from his bills of members who voted against his legislation when the House and Senate hammered out the final language.

DeLauro and Leahy have issued no such edict and aides note that congressional rules forbid those strong-arm tactics.

DeLauro believes that lawmakers will become more engaged in their jobs if they have something tangible to show for their work, providing constituents with direct results from their work.

While Republicans in the House and Senate continue to debate the merits, Democrats are moving ahead with or without them. Old-timers like Leahy want to see Republicans join the process, but they’re also happy to take all the money for their side.

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

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