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Congress revives earmarks in hopes of bipartisan deals on infrastructure, budgets

A worker welds on the Ninth Street bridge in Pittsburgh on May 6, 2020. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

After years of outcry about corruption and wasteful spending, Congress took a major step a decade ago by banning earmarks — special budget items that allow members to funnel money to projects in their districts.

But now, amid a narrowly divided Congress and President Biden’s desire to pursue a sweeping legislative agenda, earmarks are back.

Leaders in both parties took steps this month to allow limited earmarks on spending legislation, opening the door to the sort of horse-trading that Democrats hope could lead to GOP support for Biden initiatives on issues ranging from infrastructure to the annual federal agency funding bill.

The early jockeying has already begun: Senior Democrats have launched talks with Republicans about including small spending projects for their districts in Biden’s emerging infrastructure plans — dangling political carrots in front of GOP lawmakers, who have so far not been inclined to negotiate deals with the Biden administration.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, met Friday afternoon with his Republican counterpart as a first step toward restarting their use.

“I never understood why the Republicans did away with them,” DeFazio said in an interview Friday before he met with Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the committee. “If you’re talking about transportation money, you can give all the money to your state bureaucrats in the state capital, or you can give all the money to the secretary of transportation.”

Over the weekend advisers to DeFazio and Graves reported that their Friday afternoon meeting was a productive conversation, but no final decisions have been made about how to handle the earmarks.

DeFazio is making the case that these projects allow Republicans to have a stronger hand in determining how federal money gets distributed in their districts, a lure to get GOP support. “Members of Congress are a lot more in touch with the specific needs in their districts, things that are often ignored by the state capital or Washington,” he said.

The long slog on crafting a massive infrastructure bill, however, is just beginning and could last through the summer. And there are already signs that the two sides may end up in a deadlock and that, rather than a bipartisan package, Democrats might resort to a budgetary process that allows them to pass the legislation on a simple majority vote in the Senate.

In particular, Republicans are leery of what type of taxes and revenue-raising devices Democrats are considering to finance a legislative package that could top $1 trillion, all while the House has its lowest level of bipartisan trust in decades following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

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

“It’s going to be tough, because it’s such a partisan atmosphere,” said William Shuster (R-Pa.), the former nine-term congressman who chaired the Transportation Committee for six years during the last highway bill reauthorization.

Although House Republicans narrowly voted last week to allow members to request earmarks, Senate Republicans have yet to make that decision. Conservatives in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s caucus are warning against the practice, emphasizing how they tried to block the Obama administration through cutting spending.

“We’re sitting on $28 trillion worth of debt, on our way to $30 trillion in debt. What we ought to be focused on is how to save money,” said Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chair of the GOP’s campaign committee, promising to “aggressively” oppose the effort that is slated to come up for debate soon. “We need to be fiscally responsible.”

Still, some veteran Republicans believe that letting rank-and-file direct a small slice of spending to specific projects in their districts will create more cooperation over the long haul.

“We used to pass them in a bipartisan way,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said of annual funding bills for federal agencies. “And I think that directed spending — a small amount of it — probably helps move the bills. I mean, I think that’s a given.”

Highway bills used to be one of the most traditionally bipartisan pieces of legislation in the Capitol, particularly back in the heyday of Shuster’s father, Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who chaired the Transportation Committee in the late 1990s and simply steamrolled his own leadership team’s efforts to rein in his bulging legislation.

Bud Shuster devised a formula giving every lawmaker who wanted it a multimillion-dollar pot to fund projects. It took William Shuster several painstaking years to build the coalition to win passage of the most recent highway bill in late 2015, without the benefit of earmarks.

“It doesn’t make it easy,” Shuster said of passing big legislation with earmarks. “It makes it less of a challenge, because everyone has skin in the game. My father had a hammer, my main weapon was a hug.”

Republicans ended the practice on all legislation in 2011 — a decision supported by President Barack Obama — after several corruption scandals landed congressmen in jail. It came as part of the tea party, anti-government wave that propelled Republicans to the House majority, as a way to demonstrate their avowed fiscal purity.

That made Wednesday’s secret ballot a surprise for House Republicans, with 102 voting to follow the new Democratic earmark system and 84 remaining opposed.

The House Appropriations Committee will begin accepting requests at the end of this month, with members having to publicly declare they have no financial interest and that local officials support the project — which cannot go to a private, for-profit entity. Democrats have limited earmarks to just 1 percent of overall funds, which would have been about $14 billion out of the more than $1.4 trillion allocated to federal agencies for this year.

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DeFazio said that, as chairman of the Transportation Committee in 2009, he began a similar process when he started to draft a highway bill, drawing earmark requests from nearly 420 of the 435 members.

But the combination of Republicans winning the majority and Obama’s distaste for the political appearances of earmarks ended any hope for those projects. “No scandals arose, but Obama killed the bill so we’d never move forward,” he said.

DeFazio said he does not plan to use earmarks as a cudgel the way former chairmen of the Appropriations Committee used to do. Back then, if members did not vote for the overall funding legislation, their earmarks might disappear from the legislation when the final draft was written with the Senate.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already expressed dismay at how some Republicans opposed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan only to take credit for pieces of the popular legislation.

“Vote no and take the dough. You see already some of them claiming, ‘Oh, this is a good thing’ or ‘That is a good thing,’ but they couldn’t give it a vote,” Pelosi told reporters on March 11, the day Biden signed the bill into law.

That sentiment might make it difficult for Democrats to keep rewarding Republicans with these key projects in their districts if very few — or none — actually support the legislation.

Senate Democrats are awaiting what McConnell (R-Ky.) decides to do before they start taking earmark requests, but they believe this could help draw some GOP backing.

“The more you get personally invested in a bill the easier it is to get bipartisan support. There is some value to congressional earmarks and getting bipartisan support,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Cardin was caught last week on a hot mic telling Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that Democrats would likely go the partisan route to pass a massive infrastructure bill along with other key items, something that he said in an interview later was partly accurate.

Some policy proposals will not be related to the budget and will need GOP votes in a separate bill, Cardin said. “We really need to do a bipartisan bill to get to the finish line on transportation infrastructure,” he said.

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